Harris’ film holds your attention scene-by-scene, even in a few moments in which the pacing gives way to just admiring the craftsmanship or the emotions are muted by symbolism that doesn’t feel airtight. It’s the type of project that warrants a second viewing, partly to catch its connections but also to savor the textures you might have missed on your first visit.
“Moon Garden” is most emotionally incisive about a child processing what’s around her, namely the growing unhappiness between her parents. And as Emma travels through different parts of this world—like when she climbs a ladder through the clouds—Harris shows us the memory of her doing something similar with her father. It’s one of the happy thoughts, contrasted with another real-world flashback where Emma hides under some sheets with her mother, only for the claw-like hand of her upset father to tear it open. That memory inspires one of this horror story’s simple but effective sets, a tunnel made of bedsheets.
“Moon Garden” is a whole mix of creations, a lovingly scrawled sketchbook come to life by a compulsive creator. One of Harris’ greatest feats is the main villain known as Teeth, who taunts Emma, and ushers in the film’s more overt horror elements. Dressed in a long black coat and cap, it hovers above the air with spindly, long fingers. You can’t see its eyes, but you can constantly hear its chattering chompers, which becomes one of many unsettling atmospheric features from Harris (also the film’s sound designer). Sometimes Teeth places his namesake on the ground, and Harris’ camera, often placed low, studies it, and fears it. As in so many scenes of “Moon Garden,” Emma’s rapt curiosity becomes our own.
Harris’ apparent influences across these fields should help recommend this film alone: there’s a bit of Jan Svankmeijer, Steven Spielberg, Tarsem Singh, Guillermo del Toro, and David Lynch throughout, but not in a thrifting fashion. Just as the film does not over-simplify its dream passages, it also does not pander to film lovers who are primed to champion this gem. (Which was shot on expired 35mm film stock and vintage rehoused lenses!)
As Emma, Haven Lee Harris gives the kind of work a filmmaker would want from a child performer. She is incredibly reactive to this world, holding our attention while sharing the frame with far more intense, adult supporting characters or sets. She is a natural within the film’s changing environments, and in its many wordless passages, doesn’t strike a false note. It’s so rare to see a child actor’s performance that doesn’t take you out of the story in some way; that’s so invested.