In 2021, Hillary Rodham Clinton is essentially retired, a diminished figure in any meaningful political way who remains a boogeyman on the far right and, to a lesser extent, the far left for what she represents to them. Her significance in the history of women achieving influence and power in the United States government feels unspoken, given the wounds of her loss in the 2016 presidential election. Perhaps someday there will be thoughtful works written about her that take into account the person she had to become to be the person she wanted to be, to wield the power no woman has yet attained in the American political system. Love or hate her, Clinton played a complex role for decades of American politics and social change.
When I’m a Moth is an “un-biopic” about Clinton. Such alternative biopics can be an interesting and underutilized method of exploring the tenuous shared reality of a national identity. But When I’m a Moth isn’t a thoughtful work about Clinton. It’s not really about Clinton. It’s not really about much at all.
The story follows 21-year old Hilary Rodham (Addison Timlin, who is actually pretty good in the role) while she’s working at a fish-gutting station in Alaska and spending summer with the working class. She’s open about her ambitions and the assumption that this experience will feed her eventual aspirations. The moth metaphor speaks to her self-imposed summer of metamorphosis, during which she falls in with two Japanese immigrant men — one who hates her and one who falls in love with her. She leaves both behind to achieve her goals.
According to the synopsis, When I’m a Moth is “Possibly an un-biopic of Hillary Rodham set in 1969 Alaska. Possibly a collective dream about a young woman with only the most abstract connection to the politician. Possibly both.” A lot of possibles for an 88-minute film explicitly designed to be a soft biopic of a famous figure. The film reads like filmmakers Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak were chasing Clinton’s ubiquitousness at the time they wrote and shot the film in 2016 but have since found themselves unable to really understand their own approach to her character in the years since she retired from the world stage, defeated by the worst American imaginable.
Basically, Timlin looks and vaguely sounds like a young Clinton, but nothing in her character besides extended monologues about “wanting power” comes off as an empathetic or thoughtful critique of Clinton as a woman. Had Clinton won the election and gone on to become an unpopular presidential figure, When I’m a Moth might have been billed as a critique of a young woman who rose to power on the backs of people about whom she did not care. The movie certainly seems to edge around that idea without fully embracing it. In reality, though, who wants to tell that story about Clinton? Why bother?
Instead, When I’m a Moth is, simply, a misfire. It feels like a biopic from an alternate world where Clinton won and artists were trying to find new angles of pummeling her more moderate approach to governance. An alternate reality wouldn’t change the fact that the film is fundamentally a bore, though. It’s languidly paced and consists mostly of circular conversations between Clinton and her Japanese friends with dialogue like “You can’t let people know you’re ambitious. I suppose I’ll have to pretend I’m not. For decades if I have to …I’ll do whatever is necessary.” She says something to this effect multiple times. At least the cinematography is gorgeous throughout; most of her profound thoughts are spoken in dimly lit cabins bathed in yellow light or weird abandoned trains she’s exploring in the middle of nowhere.
Remove the idea that this is Hilary Rodham and the narrative doesn’t change one iota. Not even the filmmakers seem to think they had anything to say about this particular person. Say what you will about the right wing, but at least their cinematic depictions of Clinton find her to be capable of more than just boring speeches.