Read all our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival here.
One of the peculiarities of film festivals as renowned as Toronto (a rarefied air that may only include Cannes and possibly Sundance) is the ability to show films by world-class filmmakers that fall completely on their face. The filter that exists for most festivals, either because they aren’t as highly regarded as marketplaces or attention-grabbing, doesn’t always catch the true embarrassments and in three years of coming to Toronto, I’ve seen films with major stars and filmmakers die in the room. (Like have you heard of the whereabouts of “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s heartfelt but woebegone “What’s Wrong With Virginia?” since its TIFF debut last year?)
I worry the same thing might happen with “The Moth Diaries” since it’s one of the most rigorously bad yet watchable films I’ve seen in some time and possibly the best worst movie I’ve endured since the notorious Lindsay Lohan bomb “I Know Who Killed Me.” Funnily enough, my tweet last night saying just as much was retweeted by Michael Tully, the fine director of “Septien” and the head honcho of the equally fine film site Hammer to Nail, to whom I owe some inspiration. After all, he was the one who coined the term “Avant-retarde” after becoming one of the biggest proponents of “I Know Who Killed Me” and while “The Moth Diaries” doesn’t share the same embrace of bizarre color schemes or plot points involving amputation, it comes close enough to fit the definition.
“The Moth Diaries” was directed by Mary Harron, the well-heeled director of “American Psycho,” “The Notorious Bettie Page” and “I Shot Andy Warhol” who for the first time is the only credited screenwriter on one of her films, after long sharing that title with Guinevere Turner. Whether or not that contributed to why “The Moth Diaries” features most of the worst dialogue that Harron’s ever filmed is up for debate, but there is no doubt from the moment you hear the voiceover of Rebecca (an all-grown Sarah Bolger from “In America”) say “I’ve decided to write a page in my diary every day to capture what it’s like to be 16,” you know you’re in for trouble. When it’s followed by her roommate Lucie (Sarah Gadon) hugging her in excitement, exclaiming “This is going to be the best year ever!”, you know it goes double.
A straight-up adaptation of Rachel Klein’s 2002 young adult novel wouldn’t warrant the “avant retarde” tag, so it’s the combination of a more fanciful Harron than we’ve come to expect mixed with the craven commercialism of the enterprise being a would-be vampire tale for girls that sets it apart. I say would-be because you’re never really sure the furry-browed Ernessa Block (Lily Cole) is actually a vampire or not, and while that mystery is at the heart of “The Moth Diaries” as Rebecca tries to expose Ernessa for the bloodsucker she believes she is, there’s no fangs or bloodlust to confirm either her suspicions or ours as the audience. (Ernessa does have an aversion to hot water.) Instead, the story plays out as an awkward game of “Ten Little Indians” where Rebecca’s dormmates are killed or dismissed one by one, Harron always tipping her hand by suddenly paying attention to one of the girls that’s spent their time mostly in the background and then having her fall off a rooftop or if they’re lucky, just kicked out of school for drug possession.
The cycle of seeing Rebecca looking concerned, then being told she’s a loon, followed by another “accident” while Ernessa roams the halls of the boarding school looking creepy is broken up by encounters with the girls’ only male teacher (Scott Speedman), a literature teacher who lectures on Dracula and the type to underline with gusto his subject for the day on the chalkboard, “Beyond Belief: Writers and the Supernatural,” and desaturated flashbacks to Rebecca’s father, a poet who slit his wrists when she was young. If this carries any weight with Rebecca, it doesn’t show in Bolger’s performance, which never finds the middle ground between aloof and spooked, but out of obligation to the narrative, the fact her father was a writer is supposed to bring her closer to her teacher and the fact he committed suicide should make her more sympathetic to Ernessa, who it’s said had the same thing happen to her dad. But then again, Ernessa isn’t made to appear as if she’s anyone’s daughter, except perhaps the spawn of Satan in a moment of weakness. As soon as Cole appears onscreen, there were guffaws in my audience as she’s introduced as a humorless bizarro world Betty Boop, sternly recalling to Rebecca after it’s discovered she’s a whiz with Greek and Latin, “I was very serious even when I was a girl.”
From there, “The Moth Diaries” travels down such a well-worn path that Harron asks the audience to make connections that wouldn’t actually exist unless you had seen them before in other films, but in duplicating the aesthetic of your typical CW drama, the weirdness comes in having characters equally superficial, if not more so, indulge in behavior that couldn’t be shown on primetime. One girl’s loss of her virginity is built up throughout the film, the literal climax of her storyline being shown in graphic detail, but the character having no other purpose in the film otherwise. Meanwhile, the group’s good-natured rendition of the Garbage grrrrl anthem “Why Do You Love Me?” on “Guitar Hero” (mercilessly shown in its entirety) is contrasted later with the girls’ partying with crackpipes (or was it opium? I’m still not entirely sure). Strangely, such decadence feels tame within the dull, mechanical world the film creates for itself, though a consistent narrative does emerge out of the wreckage that certainly couldn’t have been what the filmmakers had hoped for.
In this sense, the film’s utterly anticlimactic conclusion is ultimately most satisfying, ending with a scene of Rebecca in a moving cab, triumphantly tossing the razorblade that presumably her father used to kill himself out the car window as she gazes out wistfully at all the people walking down the sidewalk, blissfully unaware she could hit someone with it. While no one would mistake “The Moth Diaries” for being as potentially dangerous, there’s definitely a case to be made for being as careless.