In the dozen years since his non-starter first feature film, “Virus X,” writer-director Ryan Steven Harris has found his muse. It is his little girl, Haven Lee Harris. He’s made a short with the redheaded moppet, “Every Child is a Dream with Teeth.” And with “Moon Garden,” the editor-turned-writer-director has built a dark and wondrous star vehicle for her.
She plays Emma, a child whose quarreling parents cause a stairway accident that almost kills her. “Moon Garden” is the purgatory she’s trapped in, a “Mommy, I’m HERE!” netherworld of disembodied teeth and stop-motion animated monsters, of faceless demons and Satan-fingered monsters jerking, floating and crawling their way out of toilets, of a concrete rhinoceros that she finds herself riding around in, and of a staticky transistor radio, guiding her via the voices she hears on it.
Mommy (Augie Duke) singing Harry Nilsson’s piercing and poignant “Without You,” a lullaby she’d sing to her child every night, even the ones where she took a shot at bailing out of her unhappy marriage to Alex (Brionne Davis), Emma’s Dad.
“I can’t live, if living is without you.”
Our writer-director hurls a child into horror, but in some ways, she’s too young to know what to be afraid of and what to regard with mere curiosity.
Actors and stop-motion puppets populate this not-quite-afterlife, people dressed-up like Nosferatu, the vampire, a Black man in whiteface giving Emma faint encouragement by plaintively plucking out “With You” on the harp.
Time-lapse sequences capture fruit ripening, dropping and rotting as echoes of her father’s life-lessons advice supposedly guide this four-year-old.
“Every problem has a future…Consider the future. Imagine how to get there.”
The setting for all this is a smokey, steamy steampunk underground, or equally odd Earthly moonscapes as Emma wanders hither and yon, following the radio (supposedly), hearing her parents talk to her “no sign of brain activity” body, passing through smoke and fog and heading towards “the light,” or perhaps just climbing a ladder out of this place and into the next one.
The story is simple, and the narrative still manages to be muddled here and there, especially towards the end.
But “Moon Garden” is a dazzling use of various effects and animation techniques to tell a child’s-eye-view story of purgatory, or something awfully close to it. It favorably compares to the much-more obsessive, and far less interesting, relatable or moving “Mad God.” Seeing this after that decades-in-the-making dystopic horror tale drove home the shortcomings of that obsessive project.
It’s one thing to master the medium and tools of working in it. It’s another matter altogether to turn that mastery into a story work telling, one that doesn’t just impress, it touches and connects.
Thanks to his little muse, Harris has a visually-striking child’s-eye-view of the waiting room for Hell, and an adorable tour guide that we want us to lead us out with her.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Augie Duke, Brionne Davis and Haven Lee Harris
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ryan Steven Harris. A Fire Trial Films release.
Running time: 1:33