September 15, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: “The Moth Diaries”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Mary Harron’s career has previously included such fascinatingly transgressive films as I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page, which is the only sensible explanation for the inclusion of her new, dreadful sub-CW gothic thriller THE MOTH DIARIES in this year’s Toronto Film Festival.

Diaries, which Harron adapted from a (reportedly more nuanced) novel by Rachel Klein, makes the Twilight movies look like high art.  The familiar setting is an all-girls school, which is a refuge for Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) after the suicide of her poet father.  There she has good friends, and is able to relax into her old life.  But inevitably an interloper arrives:  the charismatic, ethereal Ernessa (Lily Cole).  It’s never entirely clear what Ernessa really is–she seems to be a cross between a Mean Girl, a ghost and a vampire, and then there are those clusters of moths–but one by one, she starts driving Rebecca’s friends away, and Rebecca becomes convinced that she’s literally sapping the life from Rebecca’s best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon).  Rebecca tries desperately to convince everyone of Ernessa’s evil powers, but–wait for it–no one will believe her!
There’s nothing at all wrong with hokum if it’s staged well and performed convincingly, but you’d be hard-pressed to recognize Moth Diaries as the work of a veteran filmmaker.  The acting is hit-or-miss:  Bolger is fine as the troubled heroine, but while Lilly Cole has the kind of otherworldly beauty that suits a supernatural being, her line readings are sometimes more stilted than even her character justifies.  Scott Speedman shows up as the only male teacher at the school, in a role that may have had a point (other than providing literary references to “Dracula” and “Carmilla”) before the movie was edited, but certainly doesn’t now, and most of the other characters are merely types (the girl with the wild hair?  She’s the rebel). Presumably Harron was drawn to the material because of its intertwining of relationships among young women with a supernatural element, but in a post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer world, that’s hardly an original metaphor, and it’s been handled far better elsewhere.  
Moth Diaries has little or no suspense, making for low suspension of disbelief and causing the cliches and coincidences to feel even more obvious.  Whatever the mythology was meant to be, it’s so obscure and confusing that even the supposedly shocking moments provoke little more than a confused shrug.  The very fine cinematographer Declan Quinn (Rachel Getting Married, In America) is behind the camera, but there’s nothing particularly atmospheric or interesting about the movie’s look, and despite an 85-minute running time and action taking place over most of a year, the movie feels slow and listless.
Toronto’s film festival shows hundreds of films each year, and there are bound to be a few shambles; Harron, herself a Canadian native, may have gotten a hometown vote from the selection committee.  Her Moth Diaries is best kept under lock and key.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."