Rachel Klein’s well-regarded 2002 young-adult novel The Moth Diaries plays with the perceptions of a disturbed girl, whose father committed suicide. At the boarding school she attends, she encounters a dark, mysterious girl, Ernessa, whom she believes to be a vampire. Unnamed in the novel, the heroine is presented as an unreliable narrator, and her fear and dread can be explained as a melodramatic girl’s cracked filter on such hot-button issues as anorexia, sexuality, and the love that dares not speak its name. But movies aren’t as deft at ambiguity; they literalize everything they show us, or, at least, a movie as squarely conceived as this one.
The Moth Diaries is atmospheric but very slight. It’s supposed to be about a girl, here named Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), who must fight the psychological pull of self-annihilation. The supposed vampire (Lily Cole, looking like Carroll Borland in 1935’s Mark of the Vampire) seems to know everything about Rebecca’s tragic past, and beckons her to death in various dream sequences. Ernessa also befriends Rebecca’s BFF Lucy (Sarah Gadon), gradually draining her essence, or so it appears. All of this could still come across as ambiguous, and the writer-director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page) is certainly no stranger to warped narratives about self-deluding protagonists. But Harron seems on autopilot here. What’s missing is the allure of death, whether this is an actual vampire film or a psychodrama about a girl who’s read too much Dracula and Carmilla in her fiction class.
The movie runs only 82 minutes (including credits) but feels twice as long. The usually reliable cinematographer Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas) tamps his palette way down, shooting everything through drab blue filters. Harron doesn’t edit to move the film along — she just lets each scene dribble to a conclusion. After the early scenes, which establish some sort of normalcy between Rebecca and her friends at the boarding school, the movie loses all humor and attends to Rebecca’s increasingly emo mood. We’re stuck with rote, tired stuff about rigid schoolmarms and a professor (Scott Speedman) who admired the poetry of Rebecca’s dad and seems to have a fixation on her. Or does he? The problem with a movie this unimaginative and amorphous that tries to be ambiguous is that we’re not sure how to take anything it shows us. Ambiguity becomes meaningless game-playing.
The young Irish actress Sarah Bolger tries hard, but as written Rebecca is too boringly straight-arrow to make us feel that her mask of sanity is about to slip. (Compare The Moth Diaries with Neil Jordan’s underseen masterpiece The Butcher Boy for an instructive lesson in how a fragmented adolescent mind can be conveyed on film.) Ernessa, as written here, has no personality other than the weird traits that Rebecca can construe (or misconstrue) as supernatural. In a night scene, Rebecca and another friend witness Ernessa apparently passing through the closed glass window of her bedroom. The movie seems to forget that once it establishes that someone other than Rebecca has seen something that can’t be logically explained, the ambiguity is dead and we’re looking at a lukewarm teen horror film. Mary Harron, who hadn’t directed a feature film in six years, must have been attracted to the book’s is-she-or-isn’t-she narrative. She doesn’t seem the type to jump onto the Twilight bandwagon (though Klein’s novel preceded Stephenie Meyer’s). But she toys very feebly with this story’s elements, ending up with a goth version of the god-awful lesbian boarding-school drama Lost and Delirious, only without the eroticism. In a movie full of blood fantasies and predatory intentions, that’s a big “only.”