The Moth Diaries (2012)
“Every girl has her secrets.”
Director: Mary Harron
Cast: Sarah Bolger, Lily Cole, Sarah Gadon
Synopsis: Rebecca is suspicious of Ernessa, the new arrival at her boarding school. But is Rebecca just jealous of Ernessa’s bond with Lucie, or does the new girl truly possess a dark secret?
The Moth Diaries found little favour with critics or audiences upon its release, although I think that might have less to do with the quality of the content than with the fact that it doesn’t really justify its categorisation as a horror movie. There are elements of the horror genre — obsession, possession, paranoia and possibly incipient insanity — in its story but they hide within its story in much the same way that hidden images only intermittently become apparent within the confines of one of those trick pictures that appear to depict one thing when, in fact, they depict something entirely different.
Sixteen-year-old Rebecca (Sarah Bolger) begins a new term at her boarding school with the usual mixture of nervous anticipation which is tempered by the fact that she will be reunited with her best friend, Lucy (Sarah Gadon). It’s just over a year since the death of Rebecca’s talented but psychologically damaged poet father, and while the pain is still raw, her close friendship with Lucy is one of the key reasons she feels so positive about the future. However, the arrival of a strange new girl named Ernessa Bloch soon alters the relationship between Rebecca and Lucy. Ernessa is played by wafer-thin supermodel Lily Cole, and director Mary Harron plays on her striking, unconventional looks to invest Ernessa with an indefinable creepiness that combines with her carefully modulated mannerisms and movements to make Rebecca’s growing certainty that she is some kind of demon entirely believable. Cole has a narrow, oval face and a tiny mouth, and her eyebrows are wide and dark (in the movie, at least). Ernessa looks like you and me, but there’s also something not quite right about her that sets her apart from the other girls.
It’s not long before Ernessa and Lucy strike up a friendship, which leaves Rebecca feeling hurt and isolated and not a little jealous. The closeness she shared with Lucy the previous year evaporates with unsettling suddenness. But it’s not just Rebecca from whom Lucy becomes distanced — her growing closeness with Ernessa also means she has much less time for the other members of their close group of friends. And one by one, those friends start disappearing, one way or another. Charley (Valerie Tian), the rebellious, free-spirited member of the group is (perhaps) persuaded by Ernessa to throw a chair through the window of her room, thus earning herself an expulsion; another friend slips and falls to her death from her bedroom window, and so on. And with the departure of each friend — and the increasingly sickly appearance of Lucy, Rebecca’s obsessive belief that Ernessa is some kind of malign spirit intent on consuming her friend becomes all-consuming.
For all her possible wiles, Ernessa always seems to be apart from the group of which she is a part. She observes them, something signified by how often she is shown looking — or passing — through windows, and these observations lead her to the chilling conclusion that she and Rebecca are very much alike. Rebecca can’t see it — won’t even countenance the idea — but the clues are there, and that is where The Moth Diaries works best. Narration of the story is provided through Rebecca’s entries in her diary, and because Rebecca is the story’s central character and her emotions, which would be volatile enough at the age of 16, are positively volcanic (one weakness in the film is that not once are we fooled into believing these 20-something actresses are just 16-years-old), which therefore makes her one of the most unreliable narrators in cinematic history. The very nature of the story means that every incident is filtered through those turbulent emotions.
So are we watching a supernatural story about the possession of a young girl by a forlorn spirit whose own lonely death doomed her to haunt the halls of the boarding school that was once a hotel, or the mental disintegration of a psychologically fragile girl whose insecurities prompt her to create a host of detailed paranoid delusions that result in madness and death? The beauty of The Moth Diaries is that both of these interpretations are equally effective.