There is no doubt The Transfiguration is a powerful piece of filmmaking both in terms of approach and subject matter. Sparsely written, concisely directed and subtlety referenced, O’Shea has done something brave, original and thought provoking in his debut feature.
Nominated alongside David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water and Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic at Cannes in 2016, Michael O’Shea’s debut The Transfiguration crosses into uncertain territory from the opening frame. Filmed in a detached and clinical style which feels almost intrusive, O’Shea relies on mood, minimal dialogue and extended observation of our central protagonist, while stripped down docudrama camerawork and the use of natural light make things feel more immediate.
Drawing on themes of adolescent isolation, sexual awakening and the grieving process, O’Shea crafts a unique take on the vampire myth using contemporary life as his benchmark. Pivotal in bringing this to the screen is Eric Ruffin’s Milo, who leads a solitary existence where school and home life barely register. In these moments The Transfiguration verges on the mundane and that sense of routine repeated over and over threatens to disengage the audience. However O’Shea punctuates this purposely pedestrian style with moments of glacial savagery, allowing his voyeuristic lens to linger as Milo emulates his role models and locks out reality. Neither showy nor needlessly graphic these scenes are emphasised simply through a low level hum, which replicates both his thirst and emotional detachment.
What turns The Transfiguration into something other is the arrival of Chloe Levine’s Sophie, who displays a tenderness and humility towards Milo which is key. Equally damaged and looking only for companionship, solace and a fresh start, she exudes an innocence at odds with her situation or surroundings. In an age defined by impatience and borne of information overload Milo inhabits the space between, indulging a fascination for on-line slaughterhouse videos and VHS versions of seminal vampire flicks. In so doing director O’Shea tips a hat to his influences and underlines that sense of generational lethargy.
Reminiscent of Travis Bickle in his awkwardness and minor sociopathic tendencies, O’Shea makes it difficult to draw any conclusions about Milo. Their relationship from curiosity through to coupling and separation is handled with sensitivity and compassion, while Sophie’s acceptance, dismissal or disregard for Milo’s persona is illustrated through distance not dialogue. Her influence on that grieving process and his reliance on vampirism as a coping mechanism ask some interesting thematic questions, while O’Shea’s ability to transform his film from a rites of passage flick through to uplifting tale of self-sacrifice is worthy of your attention.
There is no doubt The Transfiguration is a powerful piece of filmmaking both in terms of approach and subject matter. Sparsely written, concisely directed and subtlety referenced, O’Shea has done something brave, original and thought provoking in his debut feature. Resurrecting tried and tested genres is never easy but here he has not only done something worthy of note, but discovered formidable talent in both his young leads.