Moon Garden has been one of my most anticipated movies of the year ever since I first saw the trailer for it a few months ago. It looked like a mesmerizing blend of fantasy and horror, and when my podcast co-host Sean Parker reviewed it for a festival and said it was great, my excitement for this film went through the roof. I absolutely couldn’t wait to see it, so naturally, when it finally got a release date, I jumped at the chance to review it. I requested a screener as soon as I could, and after checking it out, I’m happy to report that it’s just as good as I thought it would be.
Moon Garden was written and directed by Ryan Stevens Harris, and it stars Haven Lee Harris, Augie Duke, Brionne Davis, and Maria Olsen. It’s about a young girl named Emma whose parents Sara and Alex seem to be on the brink of a divorce, and one day, after seeing them get into a super heated argument, she falls down the stairs and slips into a coma.
Somehow, the accident transports Emma to a bizarre fantasy world that almost feels like a toned-down version of the Further from the Insidious films. While there, she can sometimes see her unconscious body and hear what the people around her are saying, but she can’t communicate with anybody from her world. Her only hope is to travel through this surreal landscape and find her way back to her family, and she has to do so without being caught by Teeth, a monstrous creature that wants to kidnap her so it can feed on her tears.
From the very first frame of Moon Garden, I was absolutely captivated. Even before Emma’s accident, the movie’s lighting, set design, and atmosphere already made me feel like I had stepped into another world. It was so hauntingly beautiful that I just couldn’t look away, and that effect only grew stronger as the film went on.
What’s more, the performances in this movie are excellent, so I also felt an instant connection to the characters. For example, I really wanted Sara and Alex to work things out and mend their relationship, and I felt terrible that Emma had to experience such awful strife at home. Everybody in this film, both in the “real” world and the fantasy world, is just super believable, but hands down, the best performance is given by Haven Lee Harris, the actress who plays Emma.
Child actors are notoriously hit or miss, but this little girl is an absolute gem. She can’t be much older than six or seven, but she totally nails this role as if she were a seasoned veteran. She’s tasked with conveying a pretty wide range of emotions, including terror, exuberance, and despondency, and she’s completely convincing every single time. It’s rare to see a kid this young be this good, so I can’t wait to see what she does in the future. She gave Moon Garden a strong emotional foundation right from the start, and it paid off in spades by the time the credits began to roll.
On top of all that, Moon Garden also has some really good horror. To be fair, it’s more of a dark fantasy than a straight up horror movie, but it has enough genuine frights to earn it a spot in our genre. Most notably, the creature that chases Emma in the fantasy world is one of the best monsters I’ve seen in a while. Imagine if the Chatterer from Hellraiser was played by Javier Botet, and that’s basically what this thing is. It’s pretty terrifying, and it makes for some excellent scares as well.
But above all, the best thing about Moon Garden is its themes. At its core, it’s all about the beauty of love and family, and it uses its bizarre setting and premise to bring those themes to life in surprisingly beautiful ways. See, the fantasy world where Emma is trapped doesn’t follow real-world logic. It’s a surreal place where things kind of just happen without much rhyme or reason, so the story isn’t the primary focus here.
Rather, the movie is more concerned with the emotions and themes it evokes, and there are even a bunch of times when everything you see and hear, from the acting to the music to the cinematography, comes together so perfectly that Moon Garden really embodies the beauty of love and family.
For instance, there’s a scene where Emma’s mother is singing to Emma in the “real” world, and in the fantasy world, the girl is watching someone play that same song on a weird sort of makeshift harp. The singing and the odd instrument come together to make something out of this world, so this is seriously one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen in any movie.
There are a lot of other scenes like that too, and in a certain sense, I’d even say the whole film is just one big expressionist image for the beauty of love and family. Pretty much everything in Moon Garden is beautiful, so given the movie’s plot, it’s tough not to see the entire thing as a cinematic expression of its main theme.
All of those great qualities make Moon Garden super captivating from start to finish, so like I said, it totally lived up to my sky-high expectations. It’s one of the absolute best films I’ve seen this decade, and if you’re okay with a surreal story where events don’t always follow a completely logical progression, I think you’re really going to like it too.
Moon Garden is set to debut at the IFC Center in New York on May 19, and then a week later, it’ll expand to the Alamo Drafthouse Los Angeles.