Consider, if you will, the case of Mary Harron, the splendid writer/director behind I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, and The Notorious Bettie Page. Her films are uncommonly intelligent, challenging, and difficult to classify; as a result, like many an iconoclastic female director (the examples of Kimberly Pearce and Lisa Cholodenko also leap to mind), she tends to go rather a long time between films. Her new picture, The Moth Diaries, is her first since Bettie Page clear back in 2005, and as good as it is to have her back, I can only wonder how much longer we would've had to wait for a new Harron movie that was any good. As it is, it's kind of depressing to see a filmmaker as gifted as this one slumming in a picture so shamelessly pitched to the Twi-hards as this one.
It is a vampire story, I guess; the antagonist is never called one, and about as many elements of the character jibe with the vampire mythos as don't, but let's not get too hung up on the details. Private schoolgirls Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) and Lucie (Sarah Gadon) are the bestest of friends until new girl Ernessa (Lily Cole) arrives and begins to require more of Lucie's attention. "She's a nice person if you give her a chance," Lucie insists, but Rebecca's onto her from the jump; she spends a lot of time gazing enigmatically out of windows, and saying creepy stuff like "Some people find great joy in the prospect of death." Yeah, she's a real sweetheart, Lucie.
Sure, Rebecca is jealous of Ernessa stealing her bestie, but she's also fairly certain that there's something not right about the new girl: she doesn't seem to eat, and she wanders the school grounds at night, and there's all these moths in her room. And then she notices that Lucie seems to be weak and withdrawn--wasting away, really. Luckily, the hunky new English teacher (Scott Speedman) is doing a unit on gothic literature, with an emphasis on vampire stories. Maybe... just maybe... Ernessa is...
Let it be noted that Declan Quinn's cinematography is properly moody, shaded in with deep grays that lend more atmosphere to the proceedings than the script deserves. And Cole is well cast--she has a strange, almost otherworldly look about her. But it's all just so listless and sluggish and creaky, unfolding in rote, declamatory scenes, filled with dialogue that's alternately awkward ("I'm not gonna indulge you in your ridiculous obsession!") and cliché-loaded ("This is all Ernessa's fault! She's turned you against me!"). Much of the story is narrated, to its detriment, with entries from Rebecca's journal, which sounds like the writing of a teen in all the worst ways ("Lucie's just a few feet away... but she may as well be on the other side of the world").
Some of the supporting actors are interesting, with the exception of poor Speedman, whose entire character seems utterly superfluous; his clumsy pass at Rebecca is an inevitable event that the audience waits impatiently for, yet it is completely forgotten and disregarded as soon as it occurs. Even the filmmaking is sloppy--I know that The Moth Diaries isn't the first film with a clearly breathing dead character in a coffin, but Harron inserts a giant close-up of her face, her closed eyes so clearly fluttering that I spent the rest of the film expecting to discover that she wasn't really dead.
More than anything, it's just difficult to believe that a filmmaker of Harron's wit and intelligence is taking--and expecting us to take--this melodramatic swill seriously. Is it, like American Psycho, intended to be a satire? That's the only credible explanation, but if so, the humor is completely imperceptible. Frankly, I'm not buying it; I think Harron was making a movie she thought she could sell, and lo and behold, she did. The fact remains, though: you'll have to search high and low to find a ridiculous movie that presents itself with this straight a face.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.