Twelve-year-old Oskar is a bit of a freak, and it's not just the unfortunate haircut. His parents are divorced; he's being shuttled back and forth between them. He's regularly bullied at school and cannot seem to find the will to fight back, and he has developed a crush on Eli, the little girl who just moved into the apartment next door. Trouble is, Eli is a vampire, and the guy she lives with (who poses as her father) is a sort of serial killer who must regularly slay young boys and return to feed his "little girl" with their blood. All the makings of a lovely little teen romance, right?
Right! Let the Right One In may be a little twisted in spots, but ultimately it is a sweet film about two awkward and isolated pre-teens finding solace in one another. It doesn't matter that one of them, Eli, may be hundreds of years old and, like all traditional vampires, must hide from the sun and regularly feed on human blood. She possesses various supernatural powers and the strength to fell a grown man, but she's still just a lonely little girl who desperately needs a friend. When she happens upon Oskar, another desperate outsider trying somewhat unsuccessfully to navigate the shark-infested waters of the sixth grade, she resists the urge to feed in order to fulfill another, equally pressing need -- companionship.
Let the Right One In begins in the depth of winter, with snow on the ground, barren trees, and an almost perpetual twilight -- a visible cold. The film's colors are muted and, while the Swedish landscape looks clean and orderly, there is a hardness -- a distant, cold, and detached feeling to the environment. Oskar has figured out a way to separate himself from his predicament as the daily object of a bully's attentions. In fact, when we first meet him, he is mimicking the bully's taunts, and playing with a knife he'll never use. He is pretending to be the bully and to vanquish the bully, but when he is attacked all he can do is shut down, the way that nature has gone into hiding for the winter. When a small vampire enters the picture, her presence feels natural, like she is just another deadly feature in a harsh environment that is filled with ways to die.
But Eli is also a beacon of hope and connectedness in little Oskar's otherwise dreary existence. The relationship the two develop reminded me of A Little Romance, a sweet 1979 comedy that featured a young Diane Lane as an American schoolgirl who runs away to Venice with a French boy, who is her first crush. However, Eli is more like Sara Gilbert's Darlene in Roseanne, laconic, defiant, willful and unpredictable. Certainly there are tests along the way -- young love isn't easy. And once Eli reveals her secret to Oskar, there is also the chance of rejection and betrayal.
Similar to the way the Buffy, The Vampire Slayer series used the supernatural to communicate the challenges of teen life, Let The Right One In captures the same carelessness, alienation and cruelty, but without the air quotes. It's not only a fresh take on the vampire genre, but it's also a refreshingly vulnerable take on the teen romance, with just enough shock and gore thrown in to satisfy any true horror fan. It's a harsh world, but at least there are "people" in it who can make it a little less lonely, all you have to do is "let the right one in."
Let the Right One In is now playing at the Bridge Theater in San Francisco, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.