de facto film reviews 3.5 stars

Centering a film on a child’s performance can be a great risk for a filmmaker. On one hand, as all of us were once children, and many are parents, there is a commonality that can lend heft to a story. On the other hand, many child actors are just not up to the task of effectively conveying dramatic moments. But when it works, such as in Jaques Doillon’s Ponette, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s I Wish, or Alexandre Rockwell’s Sweet Thing, child actors can really make a film shine. Like Rockwell, Ryan Stevens Harris, the writer/director of Moon Garden, uses his own daughter, Haven Lee Harris as the star of his film. And while the film is not wholly successful, Haven is excellent, centering a dark fantasy story full of abstract imagery and minimal narrative.

The film opens with Emma (Haven Lee Harris), a young girl, being awoken by her mother Sara (Augie Duke) in the early hours of the morning. Sara tells Emma that they’re going to go “chase the sunrise” and visit where Sara grew up. But this is just a pretense for them to get away from Alex (Brionne Davis), who Sara seems unhappy with. With the noise of the car starting and the garage door opening, Alex wakes up and comes down before Sara can drive away. In the only moment approaching physical violence between the two, he reaches into the car and takes the keys from Sara, then takes Emma back to her room. Alex goes to the couch while Sara lays down with Emma, soothing her to sleep with a haunting version of the song “Without You”. We next see Emma playing at the top of the Chekov’s staircase, lost in her imagination while her parents argue. As the voices get louder, she goes and pleads with them to stop. As she runs away, she slips and falls down the stairs in a scene that is horrific in its impact. When Emma wakes up, she is not home. She’s in an odd maze of pipes and rusty metal as a strange female creature rises from the mud. Lost and afraid, Emma sees through a window as EMTs place her on a backboard to be taken to the hospital. In the real world, Emma is in a coma, and the film becomes a journey through this young girl’s subconscious as bits of flashback fill in more about the family.

Moon Garden' Review: Malice in Wonderland - The New York Times Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

As mentioned previously, the film, while weirdly beautiful, would not work if Haven Lee Harris didn’t work. But she does. We care about Emma as she passes through moments of terror, sadness, loneliness and wonder. The focus of the film is on the strange coma-world Emma ends up in, so the other performances never feel quite as important. That said, Brionne Davis is very good in his scenes. Augie Duke is less so, with some of her more emotional moments coming across a bit forced. While most of the fantasy world is focused on Emma and the creatures and design within it, two performers, in short performances as temporary allies of Emma, also stood out as very good. These were Phillip E. Walker as The Musician and Maria Olsen as the Princess.

This is Ryan Stevens Harris’s second feature film, and with this being a small-budget film, he is playing multiple roles. Beyond writing and directing, he is also editor, animator, and art/production design. The film is clearly a labor of love for him. The coma-world has a fantasy-horror feel, full of industrial/steampunk grime, a nighttime desert populated only by Emma and a giant rhinoceros puppet, and strange creatures. These are often actors who are then stop-motion animated. The most frightening of these is Emma’s antagonist Teeth (Morgana Ignis), whose head is primarily a gaping hole with dirty sharp teeth floating in it. When Teeth temporarily captures Emma, it feeds on her tears in a truly disturbing sequence as she is told a story by the Headless Knitter and three floating heads in paintings (Emily Meister). While there is not much plot beyond Emma trying to get back to her parents, the structure is really quite wonderful. As the flashbacks continue, the audience sees more and more of why Emma’s brain is creating the world she inhabits during her coma. An offhand comment from her dad about scratching inside the walls of their new home being “grandpa’s teeth”, the story of a lonely princess being the book her dad is so focused on writing, a muddy-booted man in a charming but disturbing dance sequence being the representation of the types of boys her parents are worried she’ll bring home in the future, the stuffed rhino Emma clutches close in multiple scenes. Everything ties together beautifully, but rarely does the film blatantly point the moments out. They are there for viewers who are listening closely and paying attention.

Ryan Stevens Harris's 'Moon Garden', Scott Slone's 'Malibu Horror Story' Head To U.K.'s Grimmfest Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Moon Garden is a small film very much worth seeing for the huge imagination behind it. The plot is limited, but the look of the film and the feelings it invokes are enough. The closest comparison I can come up with is the design sensibility of Phil Tippett’s Mad God built on the structure of Alice in Wonderland, with shades of the childhood fantasy/horror of Bernard Rose/Matthew Jacob’s Paperhouse.

Moon Garden begins a limited theatrical release on Friday, May 19