Fireflies in the Garden (2009)

Home is where the hurt is…

Romance novelist Michael Taylor (Ryan Reynolds) is on his way back to his Midwestern hometown for a family celebration, a prospect that fills him with abject dread. He has no wish to share the news that his marriage to Kelly (Carrie Ann Moss) is crumbling, and is concerned about having another run-in with his father Charles (Willem Dafoe), with whom he has never enjoyed an easy relationship. On Michael’s arrival, however, everything changes; an accident has taken the life of his mother (Julia Roberts) and the whole family is in mourning. As Michael attempts to cop with his grief, he reconnects with his favourite Aunt Jane (Emily Watson), who, being only a little older than him, was his childhood confidante, and struggles to break through a decades-old emotional barrier that keeps him distant from his father.

As family drama in the purest sense, Fireflies in the Garden marks a solid debut for writer/director Dennis Lee and one of which he should be justly proud. The story alone is pretty straightforward stuff, standard dysfunctional family fare, but it’s lifted way above usual genre constraints by a truly outstanding ensemble cast. That a new film-maker could assemble such an array of talent obviously speaks to the strength of his material, but it’s the performances, rather than the script (adapted from a poem by Robert Frost), that shine.

Reynolds is excellent as Michael, a man torn apart by his various crumbling relationships but not reduced to angsty, self-pitying caricature. He is a strong man, despite the difficulties he faces, and his internalizing of his emotions makes him a complex, interesting character. Interesting too is his relationship with his aunt, played in flashback by Heroes star Hayden Panettiere, which pins the past and present together and helps flesh out Michael’s difficult father, who was equally as harsh with the young Jane as he was with his own son.

The rest of the cast are also great to watch, with Watson bringing in some humour as the no-nonsense grown-up Jane who receives a timely reminder of her own childhood, and Dafoe being intense yet vulnerable as a father realising he may be to blame for the estrangement of his son. And it’s good to see the ever-solid Julia Roberts back on screen again, even if to believe that she is old enough to be Ryan Reynolds mother takes a serious leap of faith.

The strength of Fireflies in the Garden undoubtedly lies in its casting, although Lee directs his starry cast with confidence and flair and this should lead on to bigger and better things for the young film-maker. Indeed, that Julia Roberts is to produce his next film Jesus Henry Christ is proof that some of Hollywood’s A-list believe they have found a true talent.

3 stars

Stars Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe
Director & Screenplay Dennis Lee
Certificate 15
Distributor The Works
Running Time 1hr 39mins
Opening Date May 29