Above: Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar, thinking about what we wants to do to his classmate bullies.
"Let the right one in" is a delicious phrase referring to the occult rule that a vampire cannot enter someone's house unbidden. Fun can be had with the rule; witness in Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula that it is at first reversed, so that when Jonathan Harker steps "willingly" into Dracula's lair we get a strange close-up of his foot stepping over the threshold accompanied by treacherous murmurs on the soundtrack. The phrase and its fatal implications are even more playfully flipped in Tomas Alfredson's film, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist, when Oskar, a bullied adolescent and unhappy in a broken household, "let's in" the neighbor's girl, a dark, solitary creature named Eli—let's her into his heart, that is. Who better to sympathize with during the lonely alienation common to adolescence than the equally forlorn existence of a teenage vampire?
Isolation is not all the two teens have in common; the stepped-upon boy's burgeoning bloodlust to revenge himself on his classmate bullies is just as painful as Eli's nightly need for human blood, habitually carried out with an uncanny subservience by a sad-sack father figure who murders random people in the dark so as to feed blood to his daughter of the night. While the "father" jumps and drains unsuspecting joggers, Oskar practices knifing an old neighborhood tree in preparation to attack his school harassers, and perhaps being a picked-on teen and an immortal bloodsucker really isn't all that different.
All coyness aside, Alfredson's film is sincere and sweet. The tremendous casting of Kåre Hedebrant as the fey, sneakily optimistic Oskar, and the sultry, feral Lina Leandersson as his vampiric love gives the film, even in its sometimes glib humor on the sidelines and an overlong, chunkily edited final act, the graveness of earnest teenage longing, and a palpable feeling of emotional respite when two lonely souls finally meet. As in Gus Van Sant's surprisingly similar Paranoid Park, Let the Right One In presents an alienated, fragmented view of an adolescence marked by separation in the home (by divorce) and at school as a picked-on outsider. Alfredson uses the widescreen to delineate these spaces through barely connected compositions, emphasizing walls, windows, vertical lines, and other elements of separation in the frame, with oblique ellipses in the story's editing to generally muddle the line between the habitual unhappiness of the day-to-day and special occurrences. It is often unclear whether we are seeing something singular occurring (be it Oskar being bullied or Oskar and Eli communicating by Morris Code through their apartment walls) or something that is part of life's day in, day out routine.
It is a fantasy, of course; not, the vampire's existence, that is, but the revelation of a soul mate next door. So incredible is this manifestation in an age of divorce and the land of seasonal permi-night and lonely, snowy homesteads in the wintry darkness that the idea of love next door is unbelievable—the film can only transfigure this true love into lyrical fantasy: thus, vampires exist. The genre underlines the wonderful extremity of Oskar and Eli's stung-heart rendezvous as much as it acknowledges the romance of each is ever-so unlikely.
So if Alfredson never pushes Eli and Oskar's trepidatious, cleverly conventional courtship to the ends Let the Right One In suggests—namely, like the conclusion to many a film by wonder-romantic Frank Borzage, the young couple transcend the difficult realities of the real world for a singular, if lonely, other-worldly love—the film does acknowledge the beautiful strangeness of finding someone to love amidst pain and suffering, and acknowledges it unexpectedly through bloodlust and clever twists on vampiric convention. Ultimately, the genre-tuning falls to the wayside and one sees with admiration that the hearts of the young can still be taken seriously by today's filmmakers, if, as they always do, these wildly beating hearts must reveal themselves in rather extraordinary ways.