Review by Sean Boelman
Genre cinema is full of people who shoot for the moon, and Ryan Stevens Harris’s Moon Garden does just that. Moon Garden is certainly one of the most ambitious independent productions of the year, and while Harris shows all the makings of a future true visionary, his talents in the writing department need a little bit more refining.
The film follows a five-year-old girl who, after being knocked into a coma, must travel through an industrial wonderland to find her way back to the world of the living. It’s a combination of Alice in Wonderland and Pan’s Labyrinth with much more prevalent horror elements than either — but it’s arguably more effective as an experiment in aestheticism than a meaningful narrative.
What’s most frustrating about this movie is that it struggles to find the balance between overtness and ambiguity. Many of the things the film has to say about abuse and trauma are compelling, but the movie’s commitment to being so expressionist often undermines its attempts to resonate with viewers.
Disappointingly, the film begins to grow monotonous after a bit. Even with a 90ish minute runtime, the repetitive nature of some of the scenes does feel somewhat cumbersome. There are certainly some unsettling moments throughout, and plenty of poetically beautiful ones too, but the initial intrigue wears off soon after you are thrown into this world.
The character development in the movie is also somewhat lacking. Obviously, any viewer with a heart will sympathize with the young protagonist for the agony she is being put through. But in many ways, that agony feels somewhat exploitative — like we are being asked to pity the protagonist as voyeurs rather than legitimately connect with her.
That being said, the film makes up for its narrative shortcomings with visuals that are absolutely transfixing and some of the most creative you will see all year. The movie touts the fact that it was shot on “expired 35mm film stock,” which certainly helps the movie achieve its dreamlike look. There are also some impressive practical effects, costuming, and production design throughout.
The one area in which the film does, unfortunately, begin to show its budget is the acting. The most recognizable name in the cast is Augie Duke, who has had a few recurring roles in television shows and pops up in a couple of indie genre movies here and there. Her delivery often feels over-the-top and direct for what is an otherwise mostly ambiguous movie. Young actress Haven Lee Harris is solid, but then again, the role doesn’t appear all that involved — at least not on the surface.
Moon Garden is certainly a well-crafted movie in a visual sense, and it earns every ounce of respect it deserves in that regard. Unfortunately, many viewers will leave feeling something to be desired by the narrative, which isn’t quite abstract enough to be experimental, but not quite concrete enough to be riveting.
Moon Garden hits theaters on May 18.