Movie Review: Young Hillary, in Alaska, pondering and questioning and gutting salmon — “When I’m a Moth”

“When I’m a Moth” is a fictional, myth-making and myth-puncturing look at a brief interlude in Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s early life, a summer she spent “sliming salmon” at a fish cannery in Valdez, Alaska.

It’s a talky, mulling-things-over sort of story, practically a filmed play with boats, scenery and romance, but also fish entrails, the Vietnam War and America’s political divide as its backdrop.

Filmmakers Magdalena Zayak and Zachary Colter have conjured up something pretentious, odd and strange, a movie that almost defies comparison to other films. But I was reminded of “Agatha,” the Redgrave/Hoffman tale of what happened when mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared for several days at the height of her fame, and of “Southside with You,” the Obamas’ courtship romance.

It’s at its most intriguing when it’s musing, a fresh-faced Wellesley College grad (Addison Timlin of “Feast of the Seven Fishes” and TV’s “Start-Up”) meeting two strangers — out of work Japanese fishermen (TJ Kayama, Toshiji Takeshima) — striking up a socially awkward conversation that for her involves moments of self-reflection, self-doubt and confession.

Hillary is “in a strange mood,” and offers to buy rough-looking strangers Mitsuru (Takeshima) and Ryohei (Kayama) a drink. It feels dangerous, with the sketchy-looking men eyeballing the coed a little too lasciviously, but also worried about racist “vigilantes” among the locals, and her wondering if they’re serious.

And as they question her and question her some more, and she questions them back, it feels on-the-spectrum awkward.

“Why you trust men you do not know? How old are you?”

Older than my body.”

She has a plan for her life, relating how she is on a “predetermined path,” “like a moth” they interpret. At 21, she lays it all out — Yale Law, politics, activism, the idea being “to liberate people, create communal trust.”

They warily discuss her in sexual terms, in Japanese, right in front of her.

“You shouldn’t tease me like you normally tease women.”

“We’re not stupid.” “Who said you’re stupid?”

Yes, she uses “language like a small sword.” And yes, she knows she needs “to work on softening my personality…You can’t let people know you’re ambitious.

The film is a moody, atmospheric and not terribly revealing failure, I have to say. But it is a fascinating one.

Here is Hillary, suggesting she’ll spin how she lost her job at the cannery. She’s “slow” on the line, she admits. But she might tell her Chicago Republican daddy or anyone else that asks that she pointed out the unsanitary conditions and sometimes unfit fish to management.

“Canned from the cannery” her drinking companions joke.

She considers her own shifting politics (Goldwater Republican to war-protesting Democrat) and decides “Real power is the capacity to educate ignorant people, maybe. So Nixon has no power at all.” But “Kissinger is a war criminal. I’ll crush him if I get the chance.”

She’s telling all this to two foreigners with shaky English and working class grasps of the world — limited, even if the younger one, Ryohei, has been to university and read “The Brothers Karamazov” and is handsome enough to get away with insult-flirting.

“Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you just like talking.”

The script, which includes sex and a just-off-the-hook introduction to sushi, toys with prescience, putting words in the 2016 presidential candidate’s mouth that make her prophetic.

“You can’t get rid of ignorance. It always seems to triumph, somehow…I feel doomed.”

“When I’m a Moth,” filmed in the green-greys of what passes for an Alaskan spring (Vancouver, actually) with rusted-out fishing hulks, towering peaks coming right down to the water, the various salmon “runs” detailed and tracked and gutted, has a marvelous simplicity about it, and a “walk in the midnight sun” eye for details.

I lived for a year just across the Gulf of Alaska from Valdez, in Kodiak, another coastal fishing town. This myopic film resonates in its depiction of the insular world of such places, the sophisticated culture shock experienced by, and delivered to the locals by the legions of college kids who come for the summer work.

A blonde coed shows up, everybody in town notices. She’s “under-stimulated,” but there to “get my hands dirty” and meet and chat up and listen to working people (Japanese, mostly, back then, Filipino by the time I arrived)? That’d get attention, too.

It’s a film that’s of mixed emotions about the future First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State. And that goes for the film as well.

Yet Timlin is terrific, showing us a wonk and political animal in the making — focused, unintimidated and kind of fearless, a young woman traveling solo to the roughest corner of the country for smelly, disgusting work with the hardened souls who perform it.

It’s not going to interest the Fox News crowd. But for anybody the least bit curious about how a Hillary Rodham might be formed, shaped and reshaped — as we all are — in her early 20s, it makes for a challenging film and an intriguing fantasia.

Rating: unrated, sexual situations

Cast: Addison Timlin, TJ Kayama, Toshiji Takeshima

Credits: Scripted and directed by Magdalena Zayak and Zachary Colter. A Winter Film release.

Running time: 1:31

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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