Director Osmany Rodriguez’s Vampires vs. the Bronx is the sort of coming-of-age movie that there simply aren’t enough of. It’s about a bunch of Black and brown kids from a part of New York City that doesn’t get nearly enough love, who all know that there are plenty of important life lessons to be learned from comic book movies.
Vampires vs. the Bronx’s premise becomes less and less absurd the more time you’ve actually spent above 120th street in New York City. While proper vampires might not be out and about preying on unsuspecting victims, multiple blocks all throughout the Bronx have fallen prey to the ravages of the sort of gentrification that displaces the lower-income families and small businesses that make the city what it is. Vampires takes that reality and turns it into a charming, if somewhat on-the-nose, story how Miguel Martinez (Jaden Michael) comes to discover that the undead are invading his neighborhood and using a real estate development company to hide what they truly are.
Since Miguel’s the neighborhood’s unofficial kid mayor, everyone around him knows that he means well enough, but when he starts spouting off about vampires manifesting out of the shadows and taking gangbangers, people immediately assume that his imagination’s getting the best of him and that he’s merely expressing a fear of change. To Miguel, each store closure or family moving away is another signal that sooner or later, the bodega owned by Tony (Mero, of Desus & Mero fame)—Miguel’s second home—will disappear.
Though Vampires vs. the Bronx’s adults are a bit slow on the supernatural uptake, Miguel’s best friends Bobby (Gerald Jones III) and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV) quickly realize that he hasn’t lost his mind, and that they’re the only ones who grasp the gravity of the situation. Vampires doesn’t exactly tread any sort of new supernatural-adventure territory because it’s much more concerned with letting its characters’ relationships with one another and their families shape the story—which just so happens to involve an entirely white group of bloodsuckers who see the Bronx as an opportunity.
Throughout Vampires vs. the Bronx, the villains repeatedly explain how, to them, the Bronx is a place that people don’t pay attention to because there’s nothing of value there. But in every moment when the movie’s focus is on its heroes, it’s clear just how wrong the vampires are, as well as what it is about the neighborhood that the boys want to protect from danger.
What keeps Vampires vs. the Bronx from feeling too much like a kid-oriented movie pandering to its audience is the care it takes to give its characters an awareness of their predicament that’s in line with the audience’s general understanding of how vampires and vampire movies work. Rather than spending too much time following Miguel, Bobby, and Luis denying the existence of vampires, the movie presents them all as culturally aware people with enough common sense to arm themselves with whatever they can get their hands on that’ll give them some sort of protection against demons. In that way, Vampires vs. the Bronx has a degree of the self-aware energy that made Zombieland so enjoyable, but here the tone’s drastically different, because....well, it’s a bunch of kids preparing to fight the undead by watching an old Blade DVD.
Despite being relative newcomers, Michael, Jones, and Diaz all deliver solid performances that set the movie’s tone all the while never letting you forget that they’re children playing children, a refreshing change of pace in a media landscape dominated by twentysomethings pretending to be teens. The kids’ chemistry makes it easy for them to carry Vampires vs. the Bronx’s quippy, self-referential humor that’s at its strongest when the movie lets itself become properly goofy, like when one character realizes that vampires don’t show up on cell phone footage. Light as Vampires vs. the Bronx is, though, it’s not without its stakes (apologies), which each of its characters become keenly aware of as the movie kicks into gear and lives up to its title.
What ends up making Vampires vs. the Bronx feel like such an unexpected gem is the simple fact that it’s a film about a squad of generally carefree children just existing and having the freedom to get mixed up in some truly wild nonsense that brings out their heroic qualities in a variety of ways. Even in the moments where the movie gets a bit preachy and glum about the real-world dangers that kids like Miguel and his friend face, Vampires vs. the Bronx never really feels condescending or like it doesn’t want you to kick back and have a few chuckles.
If Vampires vs. the Bronx had gotten a theatrical release, it’d be the sort of movie where you’d wander out of the cinema afterward feeling pleasantly surprised. But as a Netflix movie it’s hands-down a stunner, and definitely something worth checking out the next time you’re looking for something fun to space out to.
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