Thursday, May 18, 2023

Moon Garden

This childhood fantasy could scar most kids worse than Watership Down or Return to Oz. It is a child’s story, but it definitely is not for kids. The situation is gravely serious when five-year-old Emma falls into a coma, as are the circumstances surrounding her accident. To regain consciousness, she must journey through the nightmarescape of her subconscious in screenwriter-editor-director Ryan Stevens Harris’s Moon Garden, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Before Emma tumbled down the stairs, her mother, Sara, had intended to run off with her into the night, deserting her father, Alex. Initially, he seems fiercely domineering and prone to outbursts of rage, but as we see flashbacks of their lives together through their daughter’s eyes, it becomes clear their relationship is more complicated and emotionally fraught. It should immediately be established Alex is never directly abusive towards Emma. Much of his impatience and rage stems from Sara’s own severe bouts of depression and perhaps other mental health issues.

That is bad, but the macabre world Emma’s subconscious mind creates is even scarier. In creating this fantasy world, Harris clearly took inspiration from Jan Svanmajer and the Brothers Quay. The environment is highly textured and fibrous. Wolfgang Meyer’s cinematography is dark, but his golds and crimsons glow, in a manner reminiscent of William Cameron Menzies’
Invaders from Mars.

Harris’s narrative is simple, but every episode of Emma’s journey is probably loaded with symbolism, for those who are bold enough to dive in looking for it. This is guaranteed to become a cult film, because it is a remarkably singular vision, but you really have to be in the right mood for it.

Regardless, it must be noted Haven Lee Harris (the director’s real-life daughter) gives one of the best child performances of the year, at least. She is so real and in-the-moment, it is actually disturbing. She is the star, but Brionne Davis brings a great deal of subtlety to his work as Alex, even though one might expect Harris’s stunning visual style to overwhelm quiet performances. It is also nice to see horror specialist Maria Olsen somewhat playing against type as the Princess, one of the projected guides of Emma’s subconscious, drawn from fairy tales.

Fans of cult cinema will have to see
Moon Garden at some point, because it will have a long life and become a regular subject of discussion well beyond its initial release. The sooner you see it, the cooler you look, right? It is quite a statement and a feat of cinematic daring (but the Dali dream sequence in Spellbound is more fun). Recommended for cult connoisseurs, Moon Garden opens tomorrow (5/19) in New York, at the IFC Center.