The elfin 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lives in a world of almost malignant isolation. He and his mother (Cara Buono) inhabit a working-class apartment complex in wintry early-1980s suburban New Mexico, and he often looks like an alien visitor in his own home. At school, three bullies terrorize him any chance they get. One night, an older man (Richard Jenkins) moves into the complex with a young girl that looks about Owen’s age. She’s a little odd — even though it’s snowy outside, she’s shoeless — but Owen warms to anybody willing to give him any attention. Her name is Abby (Chloë Moretz), and while she initially informs Owen that they can’t be friends, they slowly form a close bond and become nearly inseparable. Owen begins to understand just what Abby is: a creature who needs blood to live.
Cloverfield director Matt Reeves pulls off the minor miracle of remaking a beloved foreign movie and not screwing it up. Director Thomas Alfredson’s 2008 Let the Right One In was based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel of the same name, and the film hybridized a vampire story with grim social realism and a heightened sensitivity to young-adult realities. Reeves, who also adapted Lindqvist’s original screenplay, almost treats the original like a readymade, maintaining its saturnine pace, creating a gorgeously glum palette (thanks to cinematographer Greig Fraser), and committing to its young protagonist’s point of view.
Let Me In is such a reverent adaptation that its subtle Americanizations can feel extraneous, but they help recast the movie’s singular universe from Sweden. The early 1980s milieu is straight from the novel, but in Let Me In that’s not merely an excuse for early MTV hits on the radio, but also for calibrating this era as one of increasingly diminishing expectations for those coming of age like Owen. This emphasis on its young principal’s life makes Smit-McPhee’s performance so paramount, and he responds with a trembling confidence.
It’s Moretz, though, who really delivers. This young girl couldn’t be more different from the sailor-mouthed kiddie crime-stopper she played in Kick-Ass, and her internalized, conflicted, and nuanced work here cements the bond that forms between Abby and Owen. As Owen comes to understand what Abby has to do to stay alive, he realizes he has to choose between the human morality he’s known and a security that comes at an irrevocable price. And for once, an American remake sticks to its source’s spirit.