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DIRECTED BY: Ryan Stevens Harris
FEATURING: Haven Lee Harris, Augie Duke, Brionne Davis
PLOT: Trapped in a coma, 5-year-old Emma must find her way to her parents while avoiding the insatiable maw of a hollow fiend.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Colors have rarely looked so beautifully “off” as they do in the Moon Garden, and that’s just the start. Making respectful nods to the likes of Svankmajer, Gilliam, and other luminaries, it would be remiss to bury this as a capsule. It is a dark, vibrant movie for children—and a perfect gateway into weird cinema.
COMMENTS: Moon Garden …
No… no. Please give me a moment, as I need to collect myself. This film may just as well have been made with me in mind. It is dark, but accented with beautifully saturated colors; the frame is almost constantly littered with broken oddities; the pacing is brisk but never rushed; and it features one of my favorite storytelling archetypes: the fearless little girl. With the help of several ideal influences, Ryan Harris has crafted a contained little marvel of a movie, showcasing considerable creativity and an impressive performance from a wide-eyed newcomer, his own daughter Haven.
Family strife hits quickly, as young Emma is woken before dawn one morning by her mother, Sara, so the two can “chase the sunrise.” Bundled into the car, their would-be escape is thwarted by the girl’s father, Alex. Emma plays on the stairway while her parents argue, ultimately escalating to a blow-out fight. Emma interrupts them with her own fury, and storms out of the room, right down the stairs, crashing to the bottom, and falling into a coma. This is where the real story begins.
Moon Garden was filmed with vintage camera lenses, on expired 35mm film stock. Through these damaged goods, Ryan Harris encases the narrative in a fuzzy/glossy bell jar through which we observe the subconscious action. Flashbacks to happier times interrupt Emma’s journey through her mind; but as the memories grow more recent, domestic strife grows more prominent. She is also interrupted by glimpses of the world outside her mind. Mostly, though, she is interrupted by an entity I’ve dubbed “the Mouth Man.” This voidful creature inflates from a nothingness after Emma’s tear travels down a creaking network of pipes to a sub-subconscious netherworld, her mind’s dark and creepy basement.
Anyone familiar with Gilliam’s Tideland or Svankmajer’s Alice will immediately appreciate the parallels with Harris’ film. Emma’s dream quest is hindered by the Mouth Man, but aided by a kindly musician, who gifts her the portable transistor radio she uses to pursue her parents’ voices. And her fight against darkness is mirrored by clues about her mother’s battle with depression, and her father’s battle facing the melancholy—and apparent irrationality—of someone whom he dearly loves. Moon Garden is a serious film filled with equal parts wonder and fear. It also ends at the perfect moment, on an eye-opening shot. In some ways, admittedly, the story mimics the most pedestrian of Hallmark Channel tearjerkers. That Ryan Harris (alongside his daughter Haven) render this experience a beautifully scary journey, is commendable. But it is the curious clatter of mystical symbols and set-pieces that make Moon Garden an alluringly strange delight.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…while it seems churlish to be so harsh on what is obviously a labor of love, one can’t help but wish Harris was more influenced by the actual weirdness of a Jodorowsky or the Czech New Wave instead of a pale imitator like Terry Gilliam. On the other hand, there’s a lot of undeniable talent on display here.”–Daniel Gorman, In Review Online (contemporaneous)