Moon Garden is an Oscilloscope release, so it’s exactly the kind of shoestring indie picture too small and weird to get much of any attention outside the hardcore arthouse film crowd. Indeed, the highest-profile name attached to this is writer/director/editor/exec producer Ryan Stevens Harris, previously best known as one of the two editors on Moonfall.

Still, the film had one hell of a marketing gimmick for the arthouse snobs: The film was shot almost entirely on expired 35mm film stock. Even better, it was produced exclusively with analog practical effects with no green screens or CGI in sight. And one of my local cinemas projected it on actual 35mm celluloid. Yeah, no way could I pass this up.

The film stars Harris’ daughter, Haven Lee Harris, who was just under seven years old at the time of filming. She plays Emma, the daughter of a tragically dysfunctional marriage between Sara and Alex (respectively played by Augie Duke and Brionne Davis). To put things as simply and spoiler-free as I can, Sara thinks that Daddy is a manipulative domineering narcissist; and Alex thinks that he’s the only one providing for the family and keeping everything together while Mommy blames him for her mental breakdowns and deep-seated emotional issues.

The two of them are fighting again when an unrelated accident sends Emma falling down the stairs and headlong into a coma. The rest of the film is a quest through Emma’s mindscape with various freaky characters, surreal imagery, and flashback scenes depicting Emma’s struggle to make sense of her messed-up family life while also fighting to stay alive and get back to consciousness.

The obvious point of comparison here is “Alice in Wonderland”. Or Pan’s Labyrinth. Or “The Wizard of Oz”. Or Mirrormask. Or Girl Asleep. Really, this is an archetypal premise that’s been done to death in a million different ways. It’s the presentation that ultimately matters here.

In that regard, the film has more in common with Mad God, given the film’s dark tone, bugfuck imagery, and dependence on crude stop-motion animation. But while the film clearly owes a great debt to grandmaster Phil Tippett, I’m not comfortable comparing Mad God to any film with a halfway coherent plot or a comprehensible thematic point. So much of this picture’s appeal comes in untangling the images and sequences, interpreting each scene as a different concept or checkpoint as filtered through Emma’s imagination.

This is very much a film that lives and dies on its visuals. Because with all due respect, none of the actors here are really all that great. Not that it’s anyone’s fault in particular that Haven Lee Harris can’t consistently deliver a performance on the caliber this movie needed — show me a preschooler who could. Moreover, she’s stuck with the same problem as Augie Duke, Brionne Davis, and all the other live-action performers in this picture: They keep getting crowded out by the effects, the tone, and the overly simplistic perspective of a toddler.

It speaks volumes that Harris, Duke, and Davis are visibly struggling the hardest to portray the layers to such deep and heavily nuanced characters. Compare that to Maria Olsen, Timothy Lee DePriest, Phillip Walker, and other actors tasked with playing the imaginary figures populating Emma’s headspace — these characters are so much more simplistic and heightened, thus they fit more seamlessly with the overall tone of the movie, and they come out looking a lot better. Hell, Morgana Ignis practically steals the show as the monstrous antagonist “Teeth”, and she never even shows her face!

Another significant issue concerns the balance between Emma’s story and that of her parents. So much of the film is about Alex and Sara, mapping the arc of their respective hangups and their crumbling marriage. And leaving their arc so frustratingly unresolved makes no sense. Unless the intention was to focus more on Emma’s process of accepting her parents’ faults and looking for the best-case scenario to work towards, then it makes a lot of sense.

In the end, the characters register more as concepts than as actual people. And for such a surreal psychological film built for abstract interpretations, that’s more than enough.

I’m at a loss for anything more to say about Moon Garden. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s only 90 minutes long and the cast is so small, which severely limits how much there is to discuss. It certainly doesn’t help that so much of the film is visual in a way that can’t be adequately described in mere text. To say nothing of the complex metaphors and themes far more intricate than I could sufficiently recap here, or the shocks and surprises I’d be loathe to spoil.

This movie is a mental/emotional/visceral/spiritual journey that can only be experienced firsthand. This is exactly the kind of movie that two different people will see and come away with completely different interpretations and revelations. Yet the film is elegantly paced and structured in such a way that we can get some satisfaction in following the plot, and some security in knowing that there is indeed a method to the madness.

It’s an innovative head trip of a movie, hand-crafted with love. How could I not recommend such a film? If you’re lucky enough to get the chance, don’t let it pass you by.

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