With the holidays quickly coming upon us, larger plates, higher credit card charges and films about extremely dysfunctional families are just around the corner. Sporting an all-star cast headlined by Ryan Reynolds and Julia Roberts, Fireflies in the Garden is based on first time writer-director Dennis Lee’s semi-autobiographical story about how his family dealt with tragedy.
When author Michael Taylor (Ryan Reynolds) is awakened by a fan during a flight who wants his autograph, he intentionally signs his name over the dedication “To Kelly.” That’s only a sign of the calm aggression shown in the Taylor family. As Michael and his sister Ryne (Shannon Lucio) head home to celebrate their mother’s graduation, they’re shocked to see the accident that has taken her life in front of the family home. As they start to mourn, old wounds begins to surface.
Through flashbacks, we find out that Michael’s father, Charles (Willem Dafoe), is a tyrant to young Michael (Cayden Boyd). Charles is an intellectual college professor who seems to have majored in child cruelty and takes pride in doing his best work at home. He’s never hesitant to verbally abuse or slap the coke bottle glasses right off of Michael’s head for no reason but for being smart.
The shy, young Michael has his allies in his saintly mother Lisa (Julia Roberts) and teen rebel aunt Jane (Hayden Panttierre). However, Lisa loves Charles far too much to serve as anything more than enabler and Michael continues to suffer such indignities as being forced to hold paint cans as punishment for plagiarizing a Robert Frost poem.
Although Jane is just a couple years older than Michael, she takes on a maternal role, promising that she’ll keep him safe. Present day Jane; however, isn’t quite so gentle or arbitrary as she’s on Michael’s back for everything from arguing with his dad to the time he spends with her kids.
The family deals with grief in their own way, but never truly as a family. Even when they’re together, you never feel any true connection between the characters on screen. That’s the biggest failing of Fireflies in the Garden. Despite nice performances by Willem Dafoe, Cayden Boyd and, to a lesser degree, Ryan Reynolds, the sum of the parts are clearly less than the whole. Although Julia Roberts is the matriarch, her maternal halo is tarnished by what she allows to take place to, at the time, was her only child. She only chooses to show a backbone when another of Charles indiscretions comes to light. Way to go, mom.
A cherished secret between the young Jane and Charles is shown, but never revealed. The bond between the two becomes broken or at least frayed before his return and yet we never truly know why. That’s just a tip of the dramatic iceberg that’s left unexplored in Fireflies of the Garden. Despite the intensity of the situations between father and son, cousin to cousin and husband and wife, voices are hardly ever raised and it leaves the viewer barely caring at all.
Seeing Ryan Reynolds not in a superhero costume and not so smart-alecky is a pleasant surprise, but this role didn’t allow him to showcase any great dramatic talents, which you get a hint at in a scene where he finally confronts Dafoe. However, any heartwrenching intensity seems to be all used up on the younger Michael. It would’ve been nice to have seen the adult version raise his voice or even his fists for once. Carrie-Anne Moss could’ve been a nice way to resolve the anguish between the two Michaels, but she’s little more than window dressing here as his estranged wife, Kelly.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is in the making. The film initially debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008 and was trashed by critics and audience alike. It was doomed to be sent to the direct to video purgatory until it was saved by Julia Roberts (and a great deal of editing) who fought for years to get it to the big screen. Her passion for the film far surpassed what was shown onscreen, either because of the excellent cinematography by her husband Danny Moder or perhaps she really loved the film. I suspect it was both. It’s a shame because like the rest of the cast, she deserved much better.
Despite the intensity of the situations between father and son, cousin to cousin and husband and wife, voices are hardly ever raised and it leaves the viewer barely caring at all.