Her films are all braver than they are successful. In each of I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page, writer-director Mary Harron plunges into dark psyches both damaged and dangerous, even while exploring how those individual ills reflect the broader social malaise of the times. Her intelligence is keen, her handling of actors is intuitive, and her agendas are admirably large, but, to varying degrees, the movies sag under the weight of the very demands she places on them. They never quite cohere and, like those damaged protagonists, the cracks show.
At first glance, The Moth Diaries seems a departure for Harron into more conventional and familiar terrain. Really familiar – on screens big or small, teenage girls and vampires have been the plat du jour for years now. However, being a serious sort, she means to rough up Twilight's teen sheen, wipe clean True Blood's low comedy, and return the fare to its Gothic roots. More specifically, using the Rachel Klein novel as her source, she also means to position the film somewhere between psychological horror, a la Polanski's Repulsion, and the schlocky genre brand. The target is good but her aim isn't – somewhere proves to be nowhere.
Consequently, the picture exists in a rather lifeless limbo of neither this nor that – not enough psychology to be intelligently creepy, and not enough schlock to be viscerally scary. The opening sequence tips us off to problems to come: close-up of a moth emerging from its cocoon, followed by 16-year-old Rebecca flitting around her boarding school campus. Oh, teenies in metamorphosis – got it, thank you.
From there, the inevitable triangle forms: Rebecca the sensitive one (Sarah Bolger); her best friend the blonde and sociable Lucy (Sarah Gadon); and newcomer Ernessa (Lily Cole), whose black plaits and pale skin and mastery of ancient Greek, not to mention a penchant for nocturnal prowling, hint so subtly at her dietary needs. In case we're still in doubt, the handsome Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) pops up as an English teacher lecturing on the niceties of the Gothic novel: "There are three things you find in every vampire story – sex, blood and death." Thanks, again.
With that check-list flagged, the script proceeds to dutifully tick off each item, always on an escalating scale. Blood begins with a flash of red nail polish, sex with Lucy tumbling hard for Ernessa, and death with a troubled girl enticed by a fourth-floor window. The escalation ensues on all fronts, but with an abruptness that verges on the very commodity Harron had hoped to erase – comedy. As for the psychology, Rebecca is given a jealous streak, a crush on the hunky teacher, and dead poet for a dad, whose demise by his own hand is revisited in black-and-white flashbacks. The daughter wonders: "Is my father's illness in my blood too?" Circle True or False – this isn't a multiple-choice quiz.
Nor is it a multiple-choice movie, although that's clearly Harron's intention. She wants to expand the possible answers, wants her characters to engage in a complex dance between the natural and the supernatural, the rational and the irrational, between horrible adolescence and adolescent horror. But that's a tricky dance to master, and everyone stumbles here – the director, the cast, us too. Ultimately, we're all just standing still somewhere in the listless middle, with the only exits both blocked – the low one to escapist entertainment, and the high one to engaged art. Trying to open up the genre, The Moth Diaries only closes its doors.
The Moth Diaries
- Directed and written by Mary Harron
- Starring Sarah Bolger, Lily Cole, Scott Speedman
- Classification: 14A