Let the Right One In: An Understated Halloween Treat

05/25/2011 12:50 pm ET

In the world of cinema one of my most beloved sub-genres is the coming of age picture. And I'm not referring to bubble-gum movies about suburbanites not getting to attend prom with the date of their choice. Rather, the pictures in question are the work, generally by young(er) filmmakers, that tend to showcase growing-up as a nuanced struggle that is usually rooted in nothing but autobiography. Some of the more well known titles as such include: The 400 Blows, I,Vitelloni, My Life as a Dog, and of course, E.T. The major difference between the former three mentioned films (all of which I adore, with Truffaut's being one of my all time favorites) and the latter is that with Spielberg's version, while he does explore the angst, alienation, and idiosyncrasies found in the other pictures, he takes the narrative a step further, and employs the imaginative, fantastic possibilities of cinema to elevate the story itself into something that gives the audience an experience that is a bit more than a simple character study -- he provides his viewer with a peak into a world that couldn't exist outside the vacuum of a fictional narrative, which I feel is the most special type of cinema. This is certainly the approach that Swedish director Tomas Alfredson employs in his treat of a film Let the Right One In.

The film follows the school-boy struggles of Oskar, played by the brilliantly cast Kare Hedebrant, who is more Elliot than Antoine Doinel, as he suffers at the hands of bullies, loneliness, a sometimes inattentive single mother, and an absent father. Oskar soon encounters his new neighbor Eli -- a bright, charismatic, confident young girl of his age played by a mesmerizing Lina Leandersson. The two begin a hesitant friendship that quickly turns into a sort of puppy love fueled by the fact that finally they each respectively have found someone to break the monotony of alienation. While Oskar lives with his mother, Eli lives with an older gentleman, who is a caretaker of sorts. Very early on we see this caretaker commit a random act of murder, that is followed by him systematically draining the blood from his victim into a bucket for collection. It is soon revealed that his ultra-violent blood drive derives from the fact that Eli is a vampire, in the mythological sense (no sunlight, no reflection, etc.), and he is trying to help her quench her hunger for the stuff that flows through the veins of mortal men. With this revelation we now have our dynamic set -- Eli is the E.T. to Oskar's Elliot. As the narrative continues we watch as Oskar and Eli's relationship develops into a young romance, which gives Oskar a new outlook on life -- he becomes more energetic, he learns to stand-up for himself, and he opens up emotionally. We see the same of Eli, except that she eventually needs to reveal to Oskar that she is in fact a member of the living dead, his reaction is inconsequential; she could admit to being an alien and all he would see are her big, sparkling eyes. The major conflict of the story is that while he is well intentioned, Eli's guardian is clumsy and is eventually caught trying to harvest blood from a student at the local school -- this ends with him allowing Eli to take his life, which leaves her on her own to scavenge for nourishment. This predicament climaxes with Eli needing to make the choice of staying with her only real connection to the outside world and risking being caught or leaving it all behind and finding herself even more alone than before she first arrived in the small suburb in which Oskar resides.

Stylistically speaking, we are talking about a very small movie. I mean small in the sense that the picture's narrative scope is not a sweeping quest for some difficult-to-reach goal. Save one or two moments, there aren't any big reveals or action sequences, nothing too fantastic occurs, which helps give the film a striking sense of realism that anchors the vampire aspect into a realm of utter believability. Alfredson keeps the performances truthful and quiet -- the world he has created is full of living, breathing people that take time to make their decisions and choose their words, building on behavior rather than forcing the plot; because of this the film never feels scripted or over the top. The camera work by Hoyt Van Hoytema is worth noting for his subtle approach to movement and lighting that further demonstrates the stoic nature of the world that our characters inhabit, never over-expressing the camera in a way that distracts the viewer. Also of technical note is Eva Noren's organic approach to production design that again only serves to heighten the understated approach that our helmer clearly set out to achieve. The one area that I did have a huge problem with was the music, while at times pitch-perfect and haunting, there are moments when it becomes much too over-powering and tends to bring the audience to a place that the rest of the film doesn't seem to be trying to get to; in other words, it becomes distracting and somewhat breaks the repetition of tone in the instances when it gets a bit out of hand.

Let the Right One In is a refreshing alternative to this year's domestic slate, which has been mostly disappointing and at times over-reaching. It is certainly not the greatest film of the year, but probably one of the most memorable. It is accessible, engaging, and most of all -- entertaining. Mr. Spielberg would be proud.

Let the Right One In opens October 24th in New York and Los Angeles, just in time for Halloween.