Is there anything more dangerously piquant than the angst of a teenage girl? The raw emotions, the budding sexuality and the passionate conviction that their feelings are matters of life and death all lend themselves towards the possibility of entertaining cinema. When handled correctly these characters can provide lurid thrills and wonderfully overwrought drama, but in less sturdy hands the results can be disaster. Even worse, it can result in mediocrity.
Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is returning to her all-girls boarding school excited to see friends and to try to put her father’s suicide further behind her. Her best friend Lucie (Sarah Gadon) is the one she’s happiest to see, and the two immediately fall into their old habits that have bonded them over the years. Into this tight friendship lands Ernessa (Lily Cole), a transfer student from the UK whose own father also killed himself. The new girl is odd in appearance and behavior, but nothing bothers Rebecca as much as Ernessa’s immediate attempts to befriend Lucie and Lucie’s almost as fast embrace of that friendship.
She quickly grows jealous, and unable to conceal her feelings she upsets Lucie and loses the one thing that mattered most. When Lucie starts getting sick no one seems to see the connection between her mysterious illness and the presence of Ernessa, but when Rebecca’s suspicions drive her to dig deeper and her friends start leaving school by car or by body bag she finds the newcomer is more than a simple mean girl. In fact, she may not even be a girl at all.
“You know, cooped up here, you girls get so close. All that emotion can turn toxic.”
Writer/director Mary Harron has adapted Rachel Klein’s novel into an intimate affair bursting with ideas that never quite get the attention they need and deserve. The initial setup of girls competing over the friendship of another is forced in early making Rebecca’s jealousy seem far less understandable than it would otherwise be. Familial suicide plays a role and the idea of the urge being passed between generations is touched upon, but the temptation is never fully explored. The arrival of a male teacher named Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) grabs the girls’ attention, but the illicit possibilities are teased then unceremoniously dropped.
Instead it seems his central purpose is to hit the nail on the head by introducing the students (and viewers) to Gothic literature in general and J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla in particular. The latter tale is about a female vampire who fixates on a young woman to the point of seduction on a quest for blood and power, and Mr. Davies’ lectures conveniently mirror what’s happening at the school. Or do they simply instill the idea in Rebecca’s imagination?
The film’s cluttered narrative aside, it does manage one feat in that it leaves an engaging question mark hanging over the events. It’s an uncertainty through to the end as to what exactly has happened and what culpability Rebecca may actually hold. Have things transpired as she’s described in her journal and as we’ve witnessed? Or is something far more mundane and insane at play here? Is Ernessa the creature of the night that Rebecca suspects, or is she simply a lonely girl who tried too hard to make friends?
The Moth Diaries is a well-acted, low-key endeavor that relaxes when it should be reaching higher for something more. The all too brief moments when hell breaks loose visually (like the image above) are just that, moments. More of them prefaced with a build up of emotion would be far better suited to the dramas unfolding in Rebecca’s teenage mind.
The Upside: Good performances; occasional atmosphere; well-done uncertainty; Valerie Tian.
The Downside: Often and ultimately underwhelming; script never as weighty as it thinks; anticlimactic ending.
On the Side: Mary Harron’s first directorial effort was an episode of the UK’s The Late Show.
The Moth Diaries opens in limited release this Friday.