'When I'm a Moth': Film Review | San Francisco Film Festival 2019

Courtesy of The Winter Film Company
Earnest, pretentious and pointless.

A drama imagines a fictional Hillary Clinton, post-college, soul-searching and sliming fish in Alaska.

A relatively little-known fact: After college, Hillary Rodham went to Alaska and worked for a short time in a cannery scraping guts out of salmon. Decades later, Hillary Clinton wrote in her autobiography, “sliming fish was pretty good preparation for life in Washington.”  What she didn’t do in Alaska, as far as we know, was have a brief fling with an unemployed Japanese fisherman and use him as a sounding board for some heavy-duty existential soul-searching. But that is the admittedly fabricated premise of When I’m a Moth, an earnest, pretentious attempt to find political relevance in an imaginary, pre-Clinton Hillary.  

The film was written and directed by Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak, whose previous efforts were also calculated to hit sociological or political nerves. They co-helmed The Wall of Mexico, a feature that played at this year’s SXSW about rich Mexican-Americans who build a wall to keep out poor white thieves, as well as Maya Dardel (2017), starring Lena Olin as a dying poet who announces in a radio interview that she will kill herself.

The Hillary film sends a political signal at the very start, with a variation on the usual biopic disclaimer. This one says: "What follows is a work of fiction. So is the United States political situation."  But any attempt to invoke the superficiality and fakery of our current moment in history fails to register.

Their heroine certainly plays off our knowledge of the real Clinton, or at least her public persona, as ambitious, endlessly disciplined and emotionally chilly. Although she is never given a last name, the character is called Hillary, she has long blonde hair and is a recent graduate of an all-women’s college, liked the real-life person. Addison Timlin plays her with a tone of rote determination, in a performance at odds with the way this Hillary writes to her parents that she wants to "say yes to everything" during this summer.

She is already headed for a political career. How do we know this? "I’m going to be a politician," she says. "I’m on a predetermined path."  She announces this to two Japanese men who aimlessly sit by the water as she walks by on her way home from work each day. She asks them to have a drink with her and discovers that the slightly older man is a drunken oaf, but the younger, Ryohei, is a sympathetic listener.

Over the next days, as Hillary and Ryohei get to know each other, she says things like, "I need to work on softening my personality, I think," for her political future. Already acutely aware of politics as image-making, she guesses that softening her persona will include pretending not to be ambitious "for decades, if necessary."  

Their conversations make it clear that she is genuinely idealistic, but also willing to take tough action. Ryohei tells her that his parents died as a result of the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki and she replies, "I guess I’ll have to be involved in something like that," one day. But except for calling Henry Kissinger a war criminal, none of her dialogue is more than generic, from the political babble to the sophomoric navel-gazing.

The pic is shot as if it were a nature documentary, full of slow panning shots of snow-capped mountains by a lake, or a prism of color across the screen, to no purpose except lengthy, cliched scene-setting. Lyn Moncrief’s cinematography is technically fine but unexceptional. The mournful soundtrack music is so distracting that it enhances the film’s self-conscious artiness instead of effectively setting a tone. Despite the many attention-getting stylistic choices, from extreme backlighting to shooting Hillary behind a railing so she looks as if she’s in prison, the movie remains flat, even and especially in the discreet sex scene.    

The title comes from a conversation in which Hillary describes herself as  "a moth that has to be in a cocoon first" before becoming her future self. But the pic doesn’t add to our knowledge about the woman who won the popular vote for president in 2016, and it doesn’t raise interesting new questions about someone who has already been analyzed for decades. That would have been fine if instead it had created a fictional character or avatar who intrigues us on her own, but it doesn’t. This woman’s most un-Hillary-like trait is that she sits on her porch reading Proust, eating a bunless hot dog and dripping mustard on the book’s pages. Was the real Hillary ever so careless? Are we meant to think she has been hiding that part of herself? This meandering film makes it impossible to guess. The best that can be said about When I’m a Moth is that it is not lurid, although it does seem pointless.

Production company: The Winter Film Company
Cast: Addison Timlin, T.J. Kayama, Toshiji Takeshima
Directors-producers: Zachary Cotler, Magdalena Zyzak
Screenwriter: Zachary Cotler
Director of photography: Lyn Moncrief
Production designer: Hayley K. Joss
Costume designer: Sekyiwa Wi-Afedzi
Editor: Kant Pan
Casting: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent
Venue: San Francisco International Film Festival

91 minutes