“The Moth Diaries” (2011)

by A.J. Hakari

In The Moth Diaries, an English teacher mentions that the vampire story has three basic ingredients: sex, blood, and death. He’s not too far off the mark; they all work as extremely versatile metaphors, their use depending on (in the case of film) the particular story and vision of a director’s choosing. This is why Vampyr is a chilling “good vs. evil” parable with an abiding interest in the paranormal, and why Twilight is…Twilight. Unfortunately, the Stephenie Meyer style is what The Moth Diaries‘ marketing team has run with, which does no justice to the deep impact it strives to make. But at the same time, filmmaker Mary Harron doesn’t quite stick the landing, thanks to her habit of skewing wispy way too often and assuming her viewers have a first-grader’s ability to decode symbolism.

Becca (Sarah Bolger) is off for another year of hitting books and sneaking joints at the all-girls Brangwyn School. While still shaken from her father’s recent suicide, Becca is fortunate enough to have the company of her best friend Lucy (Sarah Gadon) to help ease the pain. But it seems as if Brangwyn’s latest arrival has taken an interest in Lucy that exceeds wanting some more girl time. Spooky newcomer Ernessa (Lily Cole) is cozying up awfully close to Lucy, with only Becca being able to see the deliberate wedge being driven between her and her BFF. Everyone else thinks she’s whipping herself into a jealous frenzy, but Becca knows better, well aware that confronting her own inner demons is the only way to stop Ernessa from completely draining poor Lucy of her humanity.

Admittedly, The Moth Diaries was only on my radar due to the “lesbian vampire” label hoisted on it, which Harron does an admirable job of waving off. In other words, it ain’t Daughters of Darkness Redux, for the sex angle is conveyed with subtlety, as is the precise nature of Ernessa’s supernatural side. To the best of my recollection, the V-bomb is rarely dropped (if at all), freeing our protagonist to worry about her pal’s soul facing damnation without having a lot of cliched motions to trudge through. This is a fairly heavy story, but it’s handled with maturity, and barring a couple flat performances, the mostly young cast shines often enough to give credence to its riskier elements.

While I appreciate that Harron (American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page) put on her game face here, a little lightening-up could have helped The Moth Diaries achieve a more well-rounded feeling. But nope, this is a Serious Movie™, which means humor is scarce, people staring off into space is the norm, and, worst of all, all symbolism will have the hell spelled out of it. The movie draws parallels between Ernessa sucking away Lucy’s life and the damaging effects Becca’s inability to move on from her dad’s death has on her relationships, but they’re so forced and constantly drudged up, you tune out fast. All things considered, Becca seems fairly well-adjusted before the weird-eyed kid moves in, and no amount of mopey voiceovers can convince us that she’s enduring some great, psychologically-rattling crisis.

I didn’t queue up The Moth Diaries expecting a bloodbath for the ages, and I dig that it’s a female-driven horror film that sidesteps virtually all of the exploitative trappings we’ve come to anticipate. But when the curtain fell on this morose saga, the ratio of characters just looking sad to the insight gleaned from their fragile psyches favored the former to an irksome degree. From the odd hint of the red stuff to Becca’s mental instability, what The Moth Diaries offers does little to draw you in or spook you out.