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‘When I’m A Moth’ is Beautiful but Doesn’t Say Anything

Waking from a dream never felt so unfinished as it did when I reached the end credits of When I’m A Moth, an independent film directed by Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak, written by Cotler. It’s a film that on paper has all the markings of being an arthouse darling — a small cast, eerie poetic dream visuals, pontifications on choice and fate with a going nowhere protagonist and yet, as I rose from my seat afterwards, it felt as if I was remembering a half dream. Unable to finish the thought of what it wanted to be but fascinated by the parts I could remember.

That may be the intent of the film itself. It is partially inspired by some aspects of reality and a short passage from her autobiography Living History, the film actively distances itself from everything but a footnote from Hillary Clinton’s wiki. The premise of When I’m A Moth follows Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1968 when she worked in Alaska after college — before her rise in the American political sphere. The fact of her working in Alaska is the only thing that is objectively true in the story, but everything else in the film is set to be a work of fiction and it’s a fiction that has been seen in other films.

A rich, intelligent individual at the crossroads of their life, unsure of what road to take as they live in solitude until they meet someone who opens their eyes to seeing the world differently. Then the conflict of the new change in perspective turns into one where both the individual and their new found love have to make a decision of staying together or growing apart. You can make your guesses to the ending if you’ve seen these kinds of films before and you’d be more or less right. However, I feel as though the film itself knows this, it’s more interested in the meta of it all.

“What follows is a work of fiction. So is the United States political system. Any Resemblance, in either fiction, to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.” This comment is placed at the very beginning of the film. It’s a pretty provocative proclamation to state upfront with a film already billed through its synopsis and trailers to be about Hillary Clinton. Or is it? The film portrays its world in glossy indie dream esthetics. Colors feel muted, light refracts with kaleidoscope qualities, constant mirror shots, and fog all paint a place that feels like its between dream and reality at all times. Hillary, played by the extremely talented Addison Timlin, interacts within the space as if she’s constantly on the verge of waking up from this film. The strength of the film lies completely in the performances of the actors and the cinematography. It truly becomes something beautiful to watch as the actors inhabit an enamored camera that lulls you to its gaze while making you forget that it said the United States political system is a work of fiction.

This is where I began to wake up from its grasp. That line bugged me mostly because the movie does nothing with it outside of it being provocative. The movie itself constantly references the idea of something being strange or amiss in the world. It lingers in moments where Hillary is writing to someone and it’s shown through a shattered mirror or through her own dialogue constantly referring to feeling as if maybe someone is controlling her. Then there is a non speaking fisherman who just watches the characters in different scenes as well. These moments work in other films of its style, yet here they feel contrived. After the third or fourth time Hillary had commented on feeling like someone was controlling her, I wanted to see the fisherman literally hold a sign that said “metaphor,” so we could move along.

This might feel like I am saying that this movie is boring and, to be honest, it was for me. It was pretty to look at it but nothing came out of it saying why it mattered in the first place. Not all films need to have something say but when you actively have the lead character based directly on a former presidential candidate, a disclaimer that calls out American politics to be fiction, and plays with arthouse aesthetics, I think you lose a lot of momentum to just being a quasi-dream coming of age story. I woke up from this film’s slumber feeling more tired than when I went in and I hope that if you like these kinds of films that you find something interesting in it.

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