REVIEW: The Moth Diaries Tickles More Than It Bites, But Doesn't Skimp on the Dreamy Atmospherics

Movieline Score: 7

Mary Harron’s The Moth Diaries is appropriately titled in more ways than one: Groups of the fluttering, flittery creatures make a dramatic appearance in the story, which is adapted from Rachel Klein’s popular young adult novel about a possible vampire stalking unsuspecting adolescents at an all-girls boarding school. And the picture itself is wispy and translucent – it has no weight or body, and in some ways it feels more like a TV pilot than a feature film, barely substantial enough to fill up the big screen. Even so, it offers glancing pleasures of the atmospheric kind – the impact is the equivalent of a filmy cobweb brushing against your cheek. It tickles more than it bites.

Sixteen-year-old Rebecca (Irish actress Sarah Bolger) has just returned to school for the semester. Her father, a poet, committed suicide not long ago, and Rebecca has been haunted by the event. But she’s ready for the new school year, and she’s looking forward to spending lots of time with her classmates, particularly her bestest best friend, Lucie (Sarah Gadon). Their school, formerly a turn-of-the-century luxury hotel, is the kind of place where the grounds are well-manicured and the bathtubs are long and deep – the girls take steamy, soft-focus baths and then shimmy into their long white cotton nighties before drifting off to sleep.

Or perhaps not: The arrival of a mysterious new student named Ernessa (the ethereal-looking model Lily Cole, who appeared in Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) is unsettling enough to disturb their sleep patterns. She’s a tall, humorless girl who shimmers down the hallways like a Junior Morticia. She has the painted face of a stylized, porcelain doll, with two penciled-in arcs for eyebrows and a rosebud where her mouth should be. Her stare is especially glassy, though it also penetrates deeply. Rebecca takes an instant dislike to her, but Lucie is fascinated, and before long, Ernessa has the latter girl completely under her spell. Mysteriously, Lucie becomes pale and skinny and proceeds to waste away right before Rebecca’s eyes. Rebecca is worried sick about her friend; she’s also soothingly jealous that Ernessa has taken her place in Lucie’s affections.

Who is this Ernessa person? And what does she want, other than to stir up semi-lesbian undertones (or overtones, depending on how you look at them) in the story? That’s the mystery Harron, along with crack DP Declan Quinn, works toward solving, in a misty, wispy, indirect sort of way. The movie’s conclusion is pat and disappointing, but Harron – whose last feature was the smart, sensitive Notorious Bettie Page – is good at laying down moody atmospherics along the way, including moonlit dream-terrors and a display of adolescent disaffection that’s like something out of a softer, gauzier Carrie. Also, Scott Speedman shows up, as a hunky poetry teacher, to keep things safely semi-hetero. The whole thing is rather silly, but it does offer the occasional elegant, gothic shiver. And if, for a possible vampire story, it doesn’t have much in the way of teeth – well, moths don’t either, do they?

Follow Stephanie Zacharek on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.