A film adaptation of a young adult novel about a vampire at a girls’ school must have seemed like a no-brainer proposition for the producers of The Moth Diaries. Indeed, Rachel Klein’s 2003 debut sounds tailor-made for a film adaptation in the post-Twilight market: A nameless narrator, now in her 40s, looks back on the diary she wrote as a 16-year-old girl attending a private girls’ school in the late 1960s. Her close friendship with her best friend is threatened by the appearance of a mysterious student whom the narrator believes to be a vampire. Mary Harron’s adaptation of the novel keeps the basic concept, but jettisons the period for a modern setting, and the results are unfortunately bland.
Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) is excited to return to Brangwyn, an exclusive girls’ school, after spending the summer with her severely depressed mother (Anne Day-Jones). Rebecca has missed her friends, but particularly her best friend Lucie (Sarah Gadon), with whom she shares a very close friendship that (to outside observers) borders on the romantic. Soon after the girls return to their dorm, Rebecca is asked to help a new student find her way around. This student is Ernessa Bloch (Lily Cole), an imposing but mostly quiet girl that Rebecca finds difficult to be around. Ernessa and Lucie start spending a lot of time with each other, driving a wedge between Rebecca and Lucie. Worse, when strange things begin to happen around the campus, Rebecca comes to suspect Ernessa is not just another student, but a malevolent force preying on Lucie.
The Moth Diaries has a strong air of a film that had a troubled production, an impression not helped by the fact that it runs just over 80 minutes including its end credits. Characters act strangely or (seemingly) without motivation, and it’s not hard to imagine large swaths of the film’s action have been chopped in the interests of keeping the story moving as briskly as possible. Once things start getting really weird in the last act, the tonal shift is jarring. Instead of steadily ramping up to the crazy stuff, The Moth Diaries seems to just drive into a wall. Additionally, updating the story to modern day was probably not the best idea– the film’s universe is almost entirely contained in the school grounds, which would have made the period setting relatively easy to pull off. Instead, we get to watch the girls play a Garbage song in Rock Band to indicate their carefree early days before Ernessa started her meddling.
This period setting issue is particularly grating given that Harron makes the film look like a period piece. The film’s muted palette is interesting and perfectly suited to the film’s subject matter, but again it’s somewhat jarring that the film takes place in modern day. The performances are solid, and Lily Cole is particularly effective as the menacing, hypnotic Ernessa. Despite the film’s YA source material, The Moth Diaries lands squarely in the realm of the R-rating, which may explain why it had such an abbreviated theatrical run: it’s difficult to market a film to teenagers that they technically can’t get into without their parents. Unfortunately, the strangest (and most interesting) parts of the film happen much too late, and most of The Moth Diaries is spent wondering how such compelling source material could have ended up as such a dramatically inert film.
MPI Home Video released The Moth Diaries on DVD and Blu-ray on 28 August 2012. Special features include a behind the scenes featurette, on-set video diaries shot by the film’s cast members, a short promotional featurette and the film’s theatrical trailer.