It’s rare when a movie is so spellbinding that the theater melts away around you. The walls, the audience, and your seat disappear. Reality falls away. You enter a realm that feels uncanny and familiar, like a faraway dream that you only half-remember when you wake up. Few films are powerful enough to summon this wistful sensation—such movies include Spirited Away, The Fall, and Pan’s Labyrinth. With its meticulous script, innovative stop-motion, sensory-rich atmosphere, unprecedented cinematography, and vibrant color palette, Moon Garden has joined the aforementioned films in all their dreamlike, cinematic excellence.
Moon Garden begins rooted in reality. We follow five-year-old Emma (the breathtakingly talented Haven Lee Harris), as her mother Sara (Augie Duke) fails to leave her workaholic writer husband, Alex (Brionne Davis), in the early hours of the morning. Back inside the house, Emma’s parents begin to fight. As their voices escalate, Emma begs her mother and father to stop and flees. As she runs away in tears, the toddler trips on one of her toys and falls down the stairs, leaving her in a coma. Alex and Sara, grief-stricken and in shock, watch helplessly as their young daughter is taken to the hospital.
Emma wakes up in a steampunk dreamland twisting with pipes, roots, gears, and cables, littered with nightmarish creatures that emerge from the darkness and challenge reality. Baffled and terrified, Emma realizes that she is trapped within her own subconscious and must watch what’s happening in the real world through a small window.
She sees herself in a hospital bed, plugged up with tubes, as her hysterical parents beg her to come back. She cries, and her tears find their way to a demonic, trenchcoat-wearing behemoth with chattering, serrated teeth (Morgana Ignis). Ravenous for more of her tears, the monster pursues a frightened Emma through the industrial labyrinth. She is aided by the kindly Musician (Phillip E. Walker), an ashen, corpse-like, sad-eyed piano player. He warns that, for Emma to reach her parents, she must travel a long way, and go “way up high” to where they are. He gives her a radio to guide her; over the speaker, she can hear her parents speaking lovingly to her unconscious body as she lies in the hospital bed. The behemoth chases Emma once more, and the Musician urges her to run before succumbing to the entity himself. Throughout Emma’s whimsical, otherworldly odyssey, she rides inside a robotic rhino and meets a disheartened Groom (Timothy Lee DePriest) and a good-natured Princess (Maria Olsen).
Moon Garden is a modern, highly distinctive epic, a visually stunning fairytale that navigates the negative effects of childhood trauma and the in-between of life and death. The film’s stop-motion effects are breathtaking, particularly shining through in the design of the sharp-toothed creature and the headless mannequin it keeps in its lair. The saturation in each shot—its beautiful blues, oranges, and reds—accentuates the film’s dreamlike ambiance.
I admired that the thematic elements and symbolism behind Moon Garden that were hinted at, but never explicitly addressed. In my interpretation, Emma is on the brink of both worlds—the living and the dead. The friends that she meets along the way, such as the Musician and the Groom, have the pallid, dark-eyed appearance of the deceased. The monster symbolizes death, chasing Emma, as she desperately runs toward life (her parents, “way up high”). This is hinted at by the low murmurs of her doctors, who tell Emma’s parents that her prognosis could “go either way.”
The performances in Moon Garden are notable, and while Haven Lee Harris expertly portrays a vulnerable, adorable Emma, I must give kudos to DePriest. His sequence as the somber Groom, however short, was ethereal and meticulous; his choreography as he danced across the dining room table, shattering plates and glasses in his wake, was nothing short of brilliant. I would love to see more of him, especially in enigmatic roles akin to his moody, punk-influenced Groom.
Ryan Stevens Harris has created a poignant, touching film that goes beyond cinema; it captures the surreal journey through childhood dreams, memories, and traumas. Harris has executed an experience so magical, so powerful, and so bizarrely phantasmagorical, that Moon Garden will go down as one of the most beautiful films of all time.
dir. Ryan Stevens Harris
Part of the 2023 Boston Underground Film Festival – click here to follow our continuing festival coverage!