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“Just so you know, I can’t be your friend.”
I don’t remember exactly what the person I had my first real crush on said to me the moment we met, but whatever it was, that’s what it felt like. These words (translated from their original Swedish) are spoken by pale, coatless Eli to Oskar, the soulful protagonist of Let the Right One In (Låt Den Rätte Komma In), one of a handful of films to truly capture the wonder and terror of being 12. It also happens to be a vampire movie.
Like most everything said and seen in Tomas Alfredson’s 2007 masterpiece of isolation and connection, Eli’s words can be interpreted half-a-dozen ways, each reflecting as much the interpreter’s pre-adult trauma as the film itself. I can’t be your friend because we’re destined to fall in love instead? I can’t be your friend because at some point I will want to suck the blood out of your veins and you will therefore be dead? Or I can’t be your friend because I am inherently unlovable— even if I weren’t an age-old, supernatural killing machine?
What’s certain in that moment is that Eli, standing high upon a snow-dusted jungle gym, holds all of the power. I can attest that this is what life was like when you were a scrawny kid like Oskar— all misshapen sweater and Prince Valiant hair—and you happened to be talking to a girl. (It’s one of the film’s many magical qualities that the fact that Eli is not actually a girl is almost beside the point.) But then most everything holds sway over young Oskar, from a troop of sadistic school bullies to his too-cool-for-school divorced dad. That this person who holds all the cards—she not only solves the Rubik’s Cube in one evening but will explain how she did it (corners go first)—would save him from that despair makes Let the Right One In the rare romantic fantasy shown from the boy’s point of view
In many ways, Let The Right One In is a blood-soaked take on classic Peanuts, only Charlie Brown gets his happy ending and the little red-haired girl scales walls and rips faces off neighborhood drunks. Like the comic strip, it explores depression, desperation, and the banal cruelty of children. Also, it’s always snowing. When interacting with kids, the adults even take on the faceless drone of the unnamed grown-ups phoning in on a Snoopy holiday special. Alfredson prefers the Schlutzian kid’s eye or kneeling perspective—except for Eli who tends to be seen at a high angle, at least early on.
At its core, Let the Right One In isn’t simply romantic—it’s about the triumph of love in the face of its impossibility. After all, if a boy can love a funny-smelling little vampire girl who not only isn’t a girl but also may murder him, well then, there must be hope for the rest of us. Both the film and the John Ajvide Lindqvist novel on which it is based takes its title from a lyric in Morrissey’s 1988 song “Let the Right One Slip In,” itself an ode to romantic optimism in spite of fear and heartbreak. It is this incongruous blast of positivity that gives the stylish splatter both power and a sense of perspective.
Let the Right One In’s most-storied sequence is the pool scene, where Eli graphically rescues Oskar from his near murder at the hands of bullies. In it Oskar, realizing what Eli has done for him, unleashes one of the toothiest most-moving grins you should ever hope to encounter. Never mind the decapitated heads, his smile says, you came for me. For me. We may never be friends, but you will always be mine.