Let Me In
A flawed triumph
Let Me In (2010) Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, ChloŽ Grace Moretz, and Elias Koteas. Written and directed by Matt Reeves. Based on the Swedish novel and film Let the Right One In.
First and foremost, Let Me In deserves applause for giving us a multi-layered and respectful portrayal of 12-year-old characters. With its moral complexity and subtly, this is a film aimed at mature audiences, and it is one of the rare films that invites such audiences to identify with pre-teenagers.
The writers' desire to get older audiences to sympathize with youth is, presumably, the answer to the question, Why was this film set 25 years in the past? There is no other apparent reason for setting Let Me In in the 80's. The movie feels so contemporary that it is jarring, 20 minutes in, to suddenly hear a Culture Club song while the hero plays Ms. Pacman.
Many adults feel more sympathy for youth of their own generation than for youth of newer generations. Frequently we find that the most respectful and complex portraits of youth are set in the time when the writer himself was young, from George Lucas's first blockbuster American Graffiti, to TV's The Wonder Years, to Joyce Carol Oates's novel Foxfire. The trend is so clear that, when I was a teenager and dreaming of a career as a novelist, I considered making an ethical rule that I would never write about youth in an era other than the era of my youth.
Using pre-teenagers Kodi Smit-McPhee and ChloŽ Grace Moretz as our two lead characters, these filmmakers weave a rich tale of friendship, love, and loyalty, interrupted only occasionally by bad CGI.
For all the film's greatness, however, Let Me In has a few ageist issues that should not go unexamined.
This film gives us yet another example of the clichť in which a child (in this case, Ms. Moretz) cries for help, then, when a kind-hearted adult offers to help, she punishes him (in this case by killing him. Oh, did I forget to mention ChloŽ Grace Moretz in this film is a vampire? Well she is. More spoilers ahead.)
The film's biggest disappointment, though, comes in how it addresses the issue of bullying.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is menaced in school by a trio of bullies. He doesn't know how to resolve the issue until Moretz urges him to hit back. He does. And it seems to work for a while, but then it fails miserably as, in the film's climax, the bullies nearly kill him. How does Smit-McPhee survive? One of the oldest clichťs in the ageist book: he is saved by a deus ex machina, in this case Moretz flying in out of the blue to kill the young bullies.
So young viewers who might hope for advice in dealing with bullies are told the only solution is to make friends with a vampire.
Sure, this film is a fantasy, but even as a fantasy, it is sadly limited. Let Me In suggests that pre-teen bullies deserve to be punished and even killed, and that they are the only ones who deserve punishment.
A youth advocate must ask, Why does this vampire punish no one else? Why doesn't she punish the parents of these bullies who raised them with all the ugliness they now act out on the innocent? Why doesn't she punish the school administrators who neglect to provide a safe environment? Why doesn't she punish the politicians who, though their support for truancy laws, keep young victims locked in with young bullies. Why doesn't she punish the teachers who follow their training to intimidate students and thereby make the students believe bullying is expected and normal?
There are plenty of culprits in the issue of bullying, yet these filmmakers promote punishment for one culprit only: the culprit who is young.
Kodi Smit-McPhee (left) and a dead bully (right)
And make no mistake, punishment is the focus of this climax. Moretz's vampire is more concerned with executing the young bullies than she is with even rescuing her young boyfriend. Smit-McPhee is being held underwater. Every passing second increases the odds that he will drown. Yet the bully holding Smit-McPhee underwater seems to be left untouched until Moretz has finished executing the other young bullies. Smit-McPhee cannot surface until all the bullies have been executed.
To be fair, the filmmakers probably made this choice for other reasons. They thought the climax would be more effective if the carnage happened off-camera, and therefore wanted to keep our protagonist underwater until the end. But the result is the same. This ending portrays the punishment of the young as a holy miracle while ignoring (or subtly denying) the need to punish adults.
This weakness aside, Let Me In is a great film overall and a great film for youth. The rich complexity and honesty the filmmakers bring to a film about 12-year-olds, in my opinion, more than makes up for the film's shortcomings.
The fact that the MPAA rated Let Me In off-limits to young filmgoers is one more reason the ratings board should be dismantled.