As we get further and further out from The Twilight Saga’s initial success, it starts to feel like more and more of a stretch to accuse everything featuring young women and vampires of being a cash grab meant to capitalize on the mainstream’s fascination with Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. And yet, other than as a cash in on Twilight, I can honestly think of no other reason why a movie as miserable as The Moth Diaries would exist.
A tale about the repressed sexuality of an all girls boarding school and how bottled up feelings bubble to the surface once a vampire is introduced into the mix, director Mary Harron’s adaptation of the Rachel Klein novel of the same name fails on almost every level imaginable. Initially my instincts were to blame that on Klein’s novel – which I haven’t read – because Harron had already proven herself a capable adapter of literary works with her 2000 film American Psycho; but, on further inspection, the excuse of less than serviceable source material failed to explain the film’s made for (crappy) TV look, the incapable actors that fill its supporting roles, or its scatter-shot, disjointed pacing. No, The Moth Diaries has to be a case of everyone involved firing on absolutely no cylinders.
The main character is a young girl named Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), who’s recently been through a traumatic summer due to the suicide of her father. When we meet her she’s looking forward to getting back to her posh boarding school so that she can spend time with her best friend, Lucie (Sarah Gadon), and make eyes at the handsome new English teacher (Scott Speedman). Her plans get wrinkled, however, when a mysterious (she’s not mysterious, she’s clearly a vampire) new girl named Ernessa (Lily Cole) transfers to the school, starts playing blood-licking mind games, and steals away all of Lucie’s affections. On top of all that, Rebecca also has to deal with the fact that every new friend she tries to replace Lucie with gets sent away under questionable circumstances, the school seems to be suddenly plagued with swarms of aggressive moths, she’s continually haunted by visions of both her father’s and her own eventual suicide, and the handsome new teacher has chosen to respond to her goo-goo eyes with relatively unsolicited thigh grabs and post-class smooches. If that sounds like too much to take in, it is. The Moth Diaries is full of about a million half-baked ideas, a million half-baked characters, and none of it amounts to anything of any consequence or interest.
No, this film seems more interested in shoehorning as much pseudo-intellectual hooey as possible into its presentation than it is in developing characters or telling a story. Before we’ve even learned who our cast of girls are, Ernessa enters the picture and starts turning everything on its head. The problem with that is, seeing as we’ve built no attachment to our characters, the only reason we can register that they’re changing is because the dialogue keeps telling us they are. Before long, the strangely sexual undertones of Rebecca and Lucie’s relationship have been transferred over to the Lucie and Ernessa relationship, Rebecca becomes overcome with jealousy, and somehow we’re supposed to care, despite the fact that no one actually gets established as being a real lesbian. Or maybe we’re really supposed to watch the ebb and flow of teenage friendships and treat it all as if it has life and death consequences. I’m not sure. But either way, none of it works.
Which brings us to the pseudo-intellectual hooey. Over the course of Rebecca’s hallucinations about suicide, her investigation into Ernessa’s private life, her inquiries into how responsible Ernessa is for Lucie being newly emaciated and sickly, and her almost-there romance with the new teacher, images of blood, cutting, and penetration all seem to get mixed up with notions of sex and danger. But never to any end. It’s all just there because this is the stuff that vampire stories are supposed to be about. As a matter of fact, there’s even a scene where Speedman’s teacher character lectures us on what vampire stories are all about…just to make sure we get how cliché-filled this movie is. Questions about adolescence, identity, sexuality, passion, and depression are thrown out, but the film doesn’t have any perspective on any of it. Eventually you start to feel like you’re being pestered by the incessant inquiries of a five-year-old. And by the time the end credits roll, you’ll find yourself asking what the point of sitting through any of it was in the first place.
Even the main conflict of the film, the mounting danger surrounding Ernessa’s mysterious actions, fails to contain any tension. It’s left fairly ambiguous how much of Ernessa’s presence in the school and the effects she’s having on those around her are really happening, and how much of it is the imagined dementia of a protagonist who still hasn’t gotten over a traumatic event; but the stakes are always so unclear that you don’t care much either way. Trade this film’s ceaseless introduction of themes from Gothic literature and its storytelling ambiguity with some good, old-fashioned plot and a little bit of character development, and maybe it could have been saved. But, as is, it adds up to little more than pretentious imagery and adolescent melodrama. If likening teenagers in peril to butterflies emerging from cocoons and thematically linking sex with death is enough to blow your hair back, then maybe The Moth Diaries will be your version of Terrence Malick, but probably not.
The Upside: Whatever building they found to serve as the boarding school was a real coup. It’s gorgeous and spooky, and it’s the only thing working to make this movie feel like more than a third rate television production. Also, the film’s star, Sarah Bolger, shows a good deal of promise. Or, at least, she seemed to be the only one in the cast that looked remotely comfortable emoting on camera.
The Downside: Pretty much everything else. The narrative is composed of short, barely connected scenes that never congeal into a well-told story, the washed out color palette and the attempts at moody production design largely look cheap, and you’re never made to understand or care about any of the characters or anything that they’re doing.
On the Side: Over the course of the story’s happenings, Rebecca and her classmates study Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novella “Carmella.’” It’s also a vaguely homosexually inclined story about a lady vampire sparking up passionate relationships with female victims, and it’s largely considered the source of our modern, sexually charged vision of the vampire.
One quote from the book reads, “…everyone is [afraid to die]. But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together. Girls are caterpillars when they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes; but in the meantime there are grubs and larvae, don’t you see – each with their peculiar propensities, necessities and structures.” In one paragraph Le Fanu manages to convey every message this movie took an hour and a half to stumble its way through. You’d be better served to just pick up the book.