[26 September 2012]
Part of the legacy of Twilight is the reminder regarding the potency of mixing teenage relationship angst with horror genre tropes: the intensity, the morphing bodies, and the full-blooded potential craziness of both make an ideal match. If the Twilight movies fail to lead by example, they can at least illustrate by opposite, encouraging viewers and other filmmakers to imagine teenage heroes with more daring, more verve, more of anything than simple undead moping.
Sometimes the target audience and filmmaker can be one and the same. Emily Hagins, a young writer-director from Austin, Texas, has been making feature films since she was 12, when she completed Pathogen, a zombie thriller. Now she’s a wizened 20, and her third feature, My Sucky Teen Romance, has arrived on DVD.
Her film isn’t a Twilight spoof in the Scary Movie mode, though she does get some nice digs in: Kate (Elaine Hurt), the film’s geeky heroine, dismisses sparkly vampires as “just a phase”, and when she and her friends encounter a real vampire, he’s a jerk sporting a Pattinson-ish pouf of hair and introducing himself as “Edwards” to the swoons of unsuspecting geek girls (his real name is Vince, and he lacks Edward’s broody sensitivity). Vince (Devin Bonnée) has bitten Paul (Patrick Delgado), a grocery store boy engaging in the meekest of flirtations with Kate. Kate and the transforming Paul cross paths at SpaceCon—her last hurrah before leaving for college. Kate gets bitten too, and her friends run around trying to figure out how to save her, stop Vince, and sort out their hormonal longings.
There’s a sly, fun comedy to be made from recasting Twilight with a bunch of amiable geeks, and My Sucky Teen Romance has its moments, like when newly sired vampires discover that fangs give them an awkward speech impediment. But the movie is rough around the edges, and Hagins’ dialogue shoots off only the occasional spark when it should crackle. Her work is admirably sincere – she doesn’t aim for snark – but she doesn’t have a great ear for naturalism.
Her eye for everyday kids works better; SpaceCon has a low-rent authenticity, not to mention obvious affection for the geek subculture (while not sinking into endless reference jokes). But Hagins hasn’t developed visual sophistication; her camera set-ups show solid professionalism without much style beyond a candy-bright color scheme. Technical nit-picks wouldn’t much matter if the relationships were a little more engaging, but they feel undernourished, sometimes even arbitrary. Kate’s disdain for Twlight is endearing, but she winds up almost as mopey and passive as Bella Swan.
If I sound unforgiving of a filmmaker who’s just starting out, refer to the disc’s commentary, where Hagins talks about the movie with producer Paul Gandersman. She has the sweetly self-deprecating way of speaking you might expect from someone just finishing her teenage years, but the commentary reveals a resourceful writer-director in clear control of her work. Hagins has canny instincts – some of the movie’s smartest decisions, the track reveals, were made on the fly or tweaked in post. She’s talented, and will certainly improve.
The Moth Diaries (2011)
Mary Harron, writer-director of The Moth Diaries, has been making movies for longer. Her filmography includes the terrific American Psycho, a slasher movie reimagined as a fever dream of ‘80s excess. Moth Diaries is more traditional horror material but, like My Sucky Teen Romance, it sounds like a promising mix of adolescent confusion and genre terror: Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), a teenager at a boarding school, feels threatened when her best friend Lucie (Sarah Gadon) takes up with mysterious new student Ernessa (Lily Cole), who may be exerting a supernatural influence over the student body.
It’s a neat hook, playing on the way girls can throw themselves into young friendships, and the insecurities they can reveal when something goes wrong, and for awhile, The Moth Diaries creeps around the boarding school campus with character-focused patience. Cole, sporting dark snaky eyebrows, makes a compelling, ghostly figure of mystery, and Bolger conveys the mounting desperation of a girl whose best friend may be slipping away.
But Harron, like Hagins, has trouble mastering the rhythm of teenage dialogue; her characters sound neither particularly natural nor pleasingly stylized (and Rebecca adds some on-the-nose observations with her suspiciously expository diary entries). And like My Sucky Teen Romance, The Moth Diaries sputters and meanders when it should be picking up. Its story makes jerky accelerations, sometimes lurching through two or three plot turns in a matter of minutes, and grows repetitive: Rebecca suspects Ernessa of bad or possibly evil behavior; no one believes her; repeat. Occasionally Mr. Davies (Scott Speedman) chimes in with an English lecture that reflects on the movie’s themes and stylistic roots.
Based on these scenes, as well as the movie’s setting and subject matter, The Moth Diaries should be more gothic than it actually is. Instead, it shares a superficial slickness with My Sucky Teen Romance: they both look more like attractive low-budget music videos than horror movies with any atmosphere. Neither film settle for the usual genre traps—cheap jump scares, lazy set-ups, or, in the case of Twilight, a creepy refusal to engage with the story’s troubling implications. But nor do they do justice to the adolescent feelings they evoke.