The worlds of literature and film have long provided a beloved list of juvenile heroines traversing the confounding, frightening, and whimsical challenges of far-off fantasy lands. Audiences cherish the Dorothys and Alices of such worlds for their bravery, curiosity, ability to overcome in the face of danger, and the lessons they learn along the way.
In this latest addition to the trope, writer/director Ryan Stevens Harris (MOONFALL) delivers a darker, more nightmarish sort of wonderland in MOON GARDEN. The film tells the tale of a comatose five-year-old girl making her way through a nightmarish world of the subconscious in a visually extravagant effort to reach her parents. Expect no lavish musical numbers or bits of humor sprinkled throughout this tale. No ruby slippers or magic mushrooms will save her from the danger of real-life flashbacks and a hot-on-her-trail boogeyman. This gross exercise in style over substance feels like THE WIZARD OF / PANS LABYRINTH / IN WONDERLAND meets THE CELL with a touch of HELLRAISER. It’s…a lot.
The film is visually appealing, if not overwrought. Its gorgeous practical and in-camera effects are impressive and make up for where the film lacks in story. While set pieces are intriguing and well-conceived, the film doesn’t know what to do with them. The nightmarish aesthetic is sometimes used as a crutch, almost allowing its nonsensical reasoning to serve as an excuse just to look cool and hope no one notices there’s not much going on in terms of a story.
Our young lead, EMMA (played by the writer/director’s actual daughter, HAVEN LEE HARRIS), accomplishes a lot with very little. Or, rather, the editing around her performance does. At only four years old at the time of shooting, it’s clear she’s being directed and beckoned in and out of frames at times, yet at others, she gives convincing and seemingly deliberate emotion. Her parents, SARA (Augie Duke) and ALEX (Brionne Davis) aren’t granted many favors in terms of material to work with. They start as dually unlikable figures and are given little room to grow from there despite the audience being expected to forgive them for their behavior. Their relationship is complex, the film just suffers from a lack of empathy toward them, which makes us feel all the sorrier for Emma in her quest to get back to them. Given the choice between a world of subconscious nightmares and her parents—one of whom can’t seem to get a particular 80’s power ballad out of her head—the poor child seems doomed no matter the film’s outcome.
The biggest disappointment lies in the fact that the film is as predictable as can be because we’ve seen its story before again and again. The visuals within the comatose world are interesting, and the boogeyman within it is clever and scary, but beyond that, viewers know exactly how the movie will end as soon as its melodramatic opening sequence shifts into a rising action. As striking as a lot of the film is to look at, the viewer becomes numb to its Instagram filtery, lo-fi choppiness after a while. Without a story to sustain it, it just looks really cool. In a world where we can see similar images in short format in the palms of our hands, we need—nay, deserve—something much more engaging to get us through the length of a feature.
MOON GARDEN is now showing in select movie theaters.