Moon Garden is plagued by basic story issues, but it offers a worthwhile (and absolutely stunning) visual journey, all the same.
I admire the trajectory of Ryan Stevens Harris’ ambition. His work as editor and sound designer has increasingly had him working on blockbuster fare. Many would-be directors would use that as a springboard for more mainstream work. Harris has instead opted to complete a DIY fever dream driven by stop-motion effects and expired 35mm film stock. If the merits of Moon Garden don’t open doors for Harris, his earnestness certainly will.
Moon Garden follows Emma (the director’s real-life daughter Haven Lee Harris), a wide-eyed five-year-old caught in the path of a collapsing marriage. Emma tumbles down the stairs as she runs from one of her parents’ (Augie Duke and Brionne Davis) arguments, falling into a coma and awakening in a fantasy land. She journeys across the land in hopes of reuniting with her family but finds herself hunted by a creature with chattering teeth, performed to haunting effect by Morgana Ignis, who intends to feast on her tears.
A compelling fantasy bogged down by reality.
Heavy stuff, right? Yet anyone hoping the fantasy elements will connect to the real-world drama in the background will find themselves disappointed. There are a few winks and nods here and there, sure. But Moon Garden isn’t particularly concerned with how Emma ended up on this journey or what awaits her should she complete it. The parents’ constant verbal sparring — which includes topics like whether or not someone is brewing tea with enough love — doesn’t appear intended to endear viewers to either party.
This isn’t necessarily a problem, only it also doesn’t paint an image of either parent being competent enough to raise this poor child, let alone participate in her recovery after a major medical event. As the young girl confronts the dangers posed by her new environment, the film never confronts whether she might be better off staying there rather than returning home.
One has to wonder why the film includes the failing marriage at all. If this is a film about divorce, it treats its subject as an afterthought. If it is a film about love and healing and the terror of a child being forced to make their own way for the first time, Moon Garden is more than effective enough for the audience to be entrusted with piecing together some of the loose thematic bits on their own. At the very least, it might have been nice to see this be a true family affair (Ryan Steven’s wife and Haven Lee’s mother Colleen Harris also serves as co-producer and plays a small role in the film). Might as well take the complex, meta approach to family, no?
The film’s visual charms are impossible to ignore.
Thankfully, the dark fantasy segments make up the bulk of the film and are compelling enough to make one overlook the weaknesses of the opening scenes and the occasional flashbacks that follow. Moon Garden’s visual offerings will inevitably draw comparisons to Guillermo del Toro, Phil Tippett, and Terry Gilliam. But (Mad God excepting) years of studio collaboration has smoothed out a gleam of self-assembly in those filmmakers’ work. With Harris, that self-driven independent spirit is still here and it is undeniable. The unpolished approach to the special effects only make the film more delightful to watch.
It’s not hard to see the edges where one could peel back the corners of this world and reveal the fiction behind it, but that only makes Emma’s quest and the danger that drives it all the more compelling. There are moments — like a time lapse shot of food rotting — where more resources would have meant cutting corners. Not here. Moon Garden works within the confines of theWhat Ryan Stevens Harris is able to build within the confines of his resources is a testament to the power of independent film.
A promising cast cements the film’s success.
Children as young as Haven Lee Harris are rarely asked to lead a feature film. This only makes it all the more impressive to see how often the actor absolutely nails it. This is especially true in her interactions with the film’s villain. Morgana Ignis’ performance as the chattering figure listed in the credits only as “TEETH” is one of the most watchable parts of the film. Ignis’ résumé, which features projects like Stan Against Evil and the about-to-be-removed-from-Disney-Plus-for-no-good-reason Earth to Ned, has established her as one of the most promising creature performers since Javier Botet. And Phillip E. Walker, despite a minor role, gives a moving performance that sets the tone for the remainder of the film.
The visuals of Moon Garden are strong enough the film could have excised story entirely and still found dedicated viewers. That he managed to include a compelling fantasy is a welcome bonus. The real-life portions of the film fall flat, but not enough to write off an otherwise fun and thoughtful journey.
Moon Garden is in select theaters now. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
MOON GARDEN - 6/10