Moon Garden is what would’ve happened if Terry Gilliam directed MirrorMask (we can all agree Tideland never happened, right?). The dramatic horror fantasy is the sophomore feature of writer-director Ryan Stevens Harris and his first in roughly a decade. That is a long gap, though he’s had a few shorts in that time span.
The film is about the trivials of Emma (Haven Lee Harris), a young girl whose father works all the time while her mom is prone to flights of fancy and overreactions. This dichotomy pits said parents, Sara (Augie Duke) and Alex (Brionne Davis), against each other seemingly every waking moment. One night, Emma overhears a particularly intense fight. In her attempt to retreat, she falls down the stairs and winds up in a coma.
Emma awakens in a strange industrial land filled with monstrous creatures and ill-mannered folks. As she wanders this frightening world, the girl sees glimpses of her parents distraught over her condition in the hospital. However, getting back seems to be impossible, especially since the horrific Teeth (Morgana Ignis) is chasing Emma. Then there’s the creepy-looking (undead?) Groom (Timothy Lee DePriest), who puts the literal child to work as a maid. Can Emma escape back to the real world, or will she succumb to the harshness of this fantastical yet eerie dreamland?
Moon Garden tells a simple story. Maybe too simple. Elements meant to give Sara and Alex more dimensions are woefully underutilized. Alex always has a deadline to meet, thus the constant working. But what exactly is that deadline for? Did he have this job when he and Sara first got together? Why is it coming to a head now? Sara is just as much a blank slate. Why is she opposed to potentially life-saving surgery for her daughter? Are her breaks from reality becoming more frequent, or has she always been like this? For that matter, what is Teeth’s ultimate goal surrounding Emma?
“Emma awakens in a strange industrial land filled with monstrous creatures…”
Bear in mind nothing just said is the fault of the actors. Davis is creepy but still comes across as a good father, which is a hard line to walk. Duke once again proves she’s one of the most versatile and compelling actors working in indies today. Ignis delivers a wonderfully eerie performance, moving very unnaturally, being all the creepier for it. DePriest is a bloody delight as the glammed-up, dance-happy Groom. Also, seeing Maria Olsen in a more heroic, non-horror role is cool.
But Moon Garden is Emma’s story, and in this regard, the film works. For starters, the young Harris is perfect in the role. She conveys the right amount of intrigue, fear, and wonder at all she sees around her. The character is also the only one with any real depth, which is appropriate for obvious reasons. The performance and character writing merge to create a compelling arc through a strange and hazardous world.
Speaking of, filmmaker Harris proves quite adept at realizing the fantasy land. Most of the effects are practical and look stunning. A lizard/dinosaur thing controlled by yarn is epic in size. The makeup bringing Teeth to life is jawdropping for any film, much less an independent production. The visuals are where the true power of any film lies, and in that regard, this does not disappoint at all.
Moon Garden tells a story that has been done in fantasies time and time again. Plus, the supporting characters need a bit more to them to be memorable beyond what the cast brings to the table. Still, the lead is perfectly acted and written, and the visuals, from the effects to the cinematography and lighting, are immaculate. As such, fans will have a good time with expectations properly adjusted.
"…the young Harris is perfect..."