A unique revisionist take on the classic vampire tale, "Let the Right One In" has been receiving heapings of accolades as it opens theatrically in the U.S. and its native Sweden. A love story between two lonely twelve-year-olds, one of them a vampire, is certainly different, not only because of their pre-teen age, but because the film treats the dark plot with a maturity and uncompromising forthrightness that makes it very much within an R-rated realm. That the backdrop is the frozen, snow-covered setting of Stockholm, circa 1982, lends the picture an otherworldly, fable-like quality. All of this is deserving of praise, even as the experience as a whole doesn't quite come together in the way its biggest supporters have suggested.
Like a pint-sized, decidedly cuter relative of Nosferatu, Eli (Lina Leandersson) arrives in the middle of the night to the wintry Swedish suburb of Blackeberg, moving into an apartment complex with an older man, Hakan (Per Ragnar), in tow. The bullied, sad-eyed Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) watches their arrival from his bedroom window, and meets Eli proper a night or two later out in the courtyard. Oskar's offering of a Rubik's cube for her to play with touches Eli, and she in turn instructs him to start standing up for himself against abusive classmate Conny (Patrik Rydmark). As their relationship closens and they start to "go steady," Oskar begins to suspect what the viewer already knows: Eli is a bloodsucking vampire, herself and Hakan responsible for a series of murders rocking the community. When he presses her on her age, she replies, "I'm twelve, but I've been twelve for a long time."
Elegantly directed by Tomas Alfredson and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (based on his own novel), "Let the Right One In" is most affecting when the focus is solely on Oskar and Eli. Although they are technically ages apart, the vampiric Eli is forever trapped in the outer shell of a child, and her bonding with Oskar is gentle and touching in the way first love often is. Their relationship is not about sexthey are, after all, only twelvebut about much-needed companionship in a world that is cold without having anything to do with the frosty temperature outside. Oskar's reaction to learning what Eli truly is is one of initial caution, and quick acceptance; for him, it does not make a difference, and is certainly preferential to a father who comes in and out of his life and to a mother who has no idea how to connect with him.
Where "Let the Right One In" is on wobblier ground is in the rest of the narrative. There is a spooky segment involving a confused woman, Ginia (Ika Nord), who is saved from an attack only to start turning into a vampire herself, but otherwise the film isn't scary in a conventional horror sense. The townspeople, despite being well aware of the brutal murders happening around them, are almost nonchalant about the occurrences. Hakan's identity is never divulgedis he a father figure to Eli, or being controlled by her?and Oskar does not ever press Eli about her past and where she comes from. Oskar's home life is underdeveloped; he appears to be a latchkey kid, but his mom is home much of the time and their uneven relationship is in need of some fleshing out. As for the ending, it is lyrical and satisfying in its simplicity, but does not bother to question what will happen when Oskar grows up and Eli remains in her prepubescent form.
Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson equip themselves admirably as Oskar and Eli. They are both striking in their looksHedebrant is blond and fair-skinned, Leandersson brunette and with the astonishing ability to appear as a kid and an old soul simultaneouslyand their untrained performances (this is the first time either one has acted) lend an aching honesty to the roles. It is because of the naturalism and chemistry of Hedebrant and Leandersson, and also because of the striking imagery courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytemahis predominant use of white and red is eye-popping, as is a climactic scene set in a swimming poolthat one can overlook the seemingly missing pieces of the film's storytelling. "Let the Right One In" is not the be-all-end-all groundbreaker some are labeling it as, but it does put a new, sweet spin on a subgenre long in need of some freshening up.