Moon Garden has its international première at Grimmfest
“Wake up,” are the opening words of Ryan Stevens Harris’ Moon Garden, as Sara (Augie Duke) quietly gets her five-year-old daughter Emma (a very impressive Haven Lee Harris) up and into the car so that the two of them can sneak away before dawn. “Where’s daddy?”, asks a confused Emma – and then her father Alex (Brionne Davis) will appear in the garage, and the whole escapade will be brought to an abrupt end. Sara is fragile and unhappy, Alex is overworking, aloof and emotionally unavailable, and as sweet, only partially comprehending Emma bears horrified witness to the dissolution of her beloved family, a staircase accident will place her in a coma, so that the rest of the film will indeed see her struggling to ‘wake up’.
Moon Garden tells one story through multiple narrative layers and perspectives. On the one hand, two parents already under immense pressure sit in a hospital room by their comatose daughter and are confronted by hard family choices. On the other, Emma has increasingly alarming adventures in an imaginative fairyland of the mind, as she tries to follow her parents’ voices on an old transistor radio back to the real world, all the while being helped, or at least entertained, by various mythic personifications of her parents or herself – a Witch (Angelica Ulloa), a Musician (Phillip E. Walker), a Bride and Groom (Téa Mckay, Timothy Lee DePriest), a headless, knitting Ballerina (Emily Meister) and a lonely Princess (Maria Olsen) – and being pursued by a monstrous toothy creature (Morgana Ignis) that embodies the gaping void of unconsciousness and death.
As Emma draws strength from comforting memories, and calls upon inner resources that her parents had previously encouraged in her, Moon Garden unfolds in a DIY universe imaginatively reconstructed from the flotsam and jetsam of her free associations. In its stylised sets and animated inserts, we recognise parts of Emma’s domestic environment, the hospital, vacation spots and storybook locales, as well as the sheets, blankets, pillows and plush toys of her bed space, all transformed into a sinister Wonderland or Oz where danger is always at our heroine’s heels.
The horror is light, indeed suitable for children, but the combination of Emma’s young age and frequent state of distress makes for some harrowing viewing, even as her flights of fancy come for the older viewer with very real, if allegorically presented, stakes of life and death. For in this strange mix of Jamin Winans’ sleep story Ink (2009), Anthony Scott Burns’ dreamy Come True (2020), Alexis Bruchon’s bedbound The Eyes Below (2022) – and even of Phil Tippett’s Mad God (2021) re-envisaged through a child’s eye – a family disintegrates, and is reintegrated, both within and perhaps beyond the locked-in mind of a little girl. Don’t sleep on it.
Strap: Ryan Stevens Harris’ fantasy fugue follows a five-year-old’s adventures in comaland on her way back to a fragile family
© Anton Bitel