Knives, fangs and budding desire; corpses in copses and snowbound ire: Ah, young love. Whatever would we do without it?
The multi-award-winning Swedish film Let the Right One In could be summarized as a vampire tween romance, but that cheap and tawdry sum-up does zero justice to the magnificent emotional resonance of this gemlike bloodstone of a film. This is a complex examination of what it means to be a young outsider, and its bracing honesty in these matters is on par with Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. It's creepy in the same way that a youngster's first stirrings of adolescent desire are creepy - both to them and often more so to their elders - when strange attractors come into play and everything seems frighteningly freighted with the surreal, the mysterious, the forbidden.
Kre Hedebrant, in one of the film's two remarkable, standout performances, plays 12-year-old Oskar, a blond wisp of a boy who is as shy as the blue sky in a Stockholm winterscape. Bullied at school and virtually ignored at home, he spends his afterschool hours roaming the snowbound, vaguely fantastical environs that surround the apartment complex in which he lives.
Until, that is, a strange young girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) moves in next door with her father. Introverted almost to the point of pure emotional disconnect, she ultimately thaws beneath Oskar's repeated questions about her home life. How old is she? "Twelve...more or less." They are two outsiders, mirror images of light and shadow, drawn together like darkness to a single, flickering candle flame.
Oskar allows Eli in - to his home, to his heart; romance, of a sort, blossoms - a black rose in a frozen, white world, spotted more and more by crimson droplets and sudden, ghastly eruptions of violence. In more ways than the obvious, Let the Right One In plays on the horrors and fantasies of adolescence: having an all-powerful protector; finding your own kind amid the taller, faster, stronger peers who forever crowd out and cow the ugly ducklings of all schoolyards, everywhere; discovering love everlasting.
It's a beautiful horror film and, more important, a beautiful film. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema bathes everything in the chilly, reflected glare of grayish, not-quite-sunlight reflected on dirty snow, and young leads Hedebrant and Leandersson do not so much act as suck the marrow of primal childhood itself and then cough up the results, delicately and, occasionally, horrifically. The nights, of course, are epically long in Sweden. But at the end of the day, it's all about love.