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Extraordinary and mesmerizing, “Moon Garden” is a lo-fi yet visually sumptuous fantasy/horror fever dream for all ages.

Moon Garden

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Even though we tend to forget this fact, many of the top-draw filmmakers of today started small, shooting high-concept films on a shoestring budget, hoping to make it big with their little labors of love. Some cut their teeth on music videos, others got lucky with the advent of home video convenience, and a few apprenticed with legends before striking out on their own.

Either way, their first forays into feature-length motion pictures usually relied on novel camerawork and painstakingly crafted practical effects in lieu of seasoned experience, well-known actors, and an airtight script.

It’s not too much of a stretch to think that Moon Garden director Ryan Stevens Harris will find himself amongst that hallowed crowd one day, directing big-budget offerings from established studios or curated offerings for A24, if nothing else. His scrappy little indie creation, while not perfect, is a damn fine showcase of DIY ingenuity, minimalistic design, and well-realized concepts.

I’d hesitate to call it a masterpiece… but Moon Garden is absolutely a triumph.

By framing the entire experience through the eyes of a small child, Moon Garden allows for its myriad of loosely connected set pieces to tell a continuous and largely cohesive narrative.

Do some of the locations that our young heroine explores within her mind (an industrial maze, a vast desert, a giant sculpture of a rhinoceros, and a steampunk observatory) make sense contextually? Not necessarily. But such are the musings of the five-year-old mind – chaotic and whimsical. Some things don’t need to make sense, sometimes they just “are”.

It would be easy enough to draw comparisons between Moon Garden and the early works of auteur filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro, David Lynch, and Sam Raimi.

IMDb synopsis: A comatose five-year-old girl journeys through an industrial wonderland to find her way back to consciousness.

Despite being influenced by some of the greats, Harris boldly forges his own path with Moon Garden, establishing a strong visual identity in the process. It almost feels like a live-action version of Coraline or Kubo and the Two Strings at times.

There is, quite simply, no other movie quite like it.

Moon Garden does, at times, seem like a mashup of disparate genre films that would (normally) not work well together. Think What Dreams May Come as told through the lens of the first two Evil Dead movies. The Neverending Story by way of Mad God.

And yet, by framing the narrative through a five-year-old’s subconscious, those incongruent elements not only align but actually fit quite beautifully together.

What I find absolutely amazing is that none of the sets or effects are exceptionally grand in design, but they are all filmed in such a way that they FEEL expensive. The same can be said about the cinematography. Nothing that transpires on screen is necessarily new, but it’s all implemented so incredibly well that it just works.

When leaves are blowing along the byways of the industrial maze, it’s clear that a standard leaf blower is being employed to push them along, but the end result still looks cool regardless. The tunnelways made of bedsheets are a particular standout… and absolutely something a young child would conjure.

Although many of Moon Garden’s sets and props are constructed in such a way that you can practically see the seams and joins, they fit the film’s aesthetic so perfectly that it simply doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, the “real world” segments of the story, including the accidental tumble that lands Emma in her comatose state, are the weakest links in what is an otherwise robust chain. Not only are they unnecessarily overt… they are also heavily at odds with the surreal nature of the rest of the film.

Featuring occasionally extreme levels of exposition, the movie’s opening nearly buckles under its own weight, and it is (unfortunately) where the performances struggle a bit. The flashback sequences fare a little better, as they are directly related to the actions taken by Emma in the dream world.

It is difficult enough for any single actor to carry the majority of a feature-length film on their shoulders, so it is a testament to Haven Lee Harris’s (the director’s real-life daughter) watchability that she acquits herself as well as she does.

Though she is bolstered by some memorable performances from the various denizens of her dream world, Haven, as Emma, is an absolute delight.

She was only four when production started, and as someone who has raised his fair share of children (which is generally akin to herding cats), getting someone that young to emote as well as she does must have been a herculean effort.

There are moments when the overdubs of her reactions don’t line up with what’s transpiring on screen, but such instances are few and far between. By and large, her performance is quite engaging, especially when she is observing her parents (and herself) in the ambulance and at the hospital, a third party to her own calamity.

Alas, the parents don’t fare quite as well. I chalk this up more to the material they are working with as opposed to their talents as thespians. When interacting with Haven, both Augie Duke (as Sara, the mom) and Brionne Davis (as Alex, the dad) come across as warm and genuine. Their grief at their daughter’s catatonic state is palpable, as are their disagreements over the best course of medical procedures.

It is only when interacting with each other that the performances fall a little flat, providing little in the way of familiarity that a long-married couple would possess.

Morgana Ignis gives a great body-horror performance as “Teeth”, the antagonist of the movie.

Perpetually hidden by a large coat and cap, Ignis has to generate menace primarily through the motions of her hands, feet, and body positioning, and Ignis is more than up to the task. While we do get a minor mention of where the “teeth” in question come from, it’s a shame we aren’t given more exposition as to who the character actually is and what its connection is to Emma.

The rest of the supporting cast fill small but colorful roles, some more deftly than others, with Phillip E. Walker as “Musician” being the standout. His character is given the least amount of screen time out of the bit players but leaves the largest impression by far. His limited role is both vital and bittersweet.

On the technical side of things, Moon Garden is a marvel (considering Harris’ editing background, it makes sense).

With simple camera techniques and angles, effective use of lighting and sound, and a modest number of reused elements, Ryan Stevens Harris makes the movie feel ten times bigger than it is. The fact that he filmed with expired 35mm film stock surely helps with the overall dream-like quality. It really is like a pop-up storybook come to life.

Moon Garden is a powerful argument for the continued use of practical vs digital effects, especially when the actors are required to interface with them.

The sound design also deserves special mention.

The ways in which the “real world” sounds invade and impact Emma’s dreams are believable and compelling and very true to how coma survivors have explained hearing the world around them while their bodies were stuck on pause. Reverb, delay, distortion… again, none of these methods are new, but they’re all employed in very compelling ways.

There are intimations of mature themes sprinkled throughout Moon Garden, some of which are handled better than others.

Emma’s dad is an argumentative workaholic (and possibly alcoholic, too, as we see in one brief snippet), while her mom is clearly struggling with depression, occasionally to the point that she can’t even get out of bed. While these scenarios heavily influence the story and Emma’s reactions to the world around her, they just don’t transition as well as they could on screen, which is a shame.

In a bold (and largely unsung) move, the subtext of the movie seems to be the law of unintended consequences, primarily in how our actions (even seemingly minor ones) are perceived by, and sometimes acted upon, by the young ones in our lives. Even something as innocuous as an admission of “not right now, I’m busy” can come across as sinister and callous to a child in their formative years.

It’s an especially heady concept, driving home the indisputable fact that our words and deeds have a lasting effect on our children, potentially showing up again and again in their lives, recursive renditions of our best and worst selves playing out through them, directly influencing their interactions with the world.

Many films struggle to adequately portray such a topic, but Moon Garden absolutely nails it.

The scares are minor at best, more in line with after-school specials or the original (and thoroughly cheesy) Goosebumps specials. Very young children might have moments of fright, but there’s nothing here to make grown-up horror hounds disturbed in any way. Language, sexuality, violence, and other “adult” elements are either absent or merely hinted at.

As mentioned earlier, I cannot quite call Moon Garden a masterpiece of filmmaking. There are enough rough edges and tonal missteps that it doesn’t quite come together as seamlessly as it should. That said, for a DIY film with a precocious five-year-old as the lead character, which touches on a few heady topics along the way, it is an absolutely stellar accomplishment.

This is a film that is truly innovative, which is a word I don’t use very often.

Whether you have young children or not, Moon Garden is absolutely worth a watch, and I am excited for what future projects Ryan Stevens Harris has in the works.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 5

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