Screenwriter: Dennis Lee
Starring: Julia Roberts, Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson, Carrie-Ann Moss, Ioan Gruffudd, Hayden Panettiere
Running time: 96 mins
This semi-autobiographical tale from writer-director Dennis Lee tells the story of a dysfunctional family forced to bond together following the death of a relative. Boasting one of the most impressive and indeed diverse casts of the year (think Julia Roberts alongside Heroes' feisty cheerleader Hayden Panettiere) and a harrowing, thought-provoking storyline, Fireflies In The Garden should be a sure-fire hit. Unfortunately, Lee's bittersweet tale of a family rediscovering their roots and making amends for past wrongs fails to hit the mark with its tedious melodrama and plodding plot.
Skipping between the present and twenty years ago, the story is told from the point of view of romance novellist Michael (Reynolds), who has reluctantly returned to his Illinois hometown to celebrate the graduation of his mother Lisa (a convincingly aged Roberts). Disconnected from his family and estranged from his alcoholic wife (Moss), we soon learn that he has written a tell-all book about his youth, including the abuse he endured at the hands of his sadistic father Charles (Dafoe). Of course, his relatives are unimpressed with his decision to out their darkest secrets and thus Michael is led to reflect through a series of flashbacks on how the family came to be how they are.
Central to the story (or so we are told) is Michael's relationship with Jane, his elder aunt who enters his life as a troubled, sulky teenager (Panettiere) and later morphs into an all-American housewife (Watson) who is inexplicably living in his old childhood home. While Panettiere and Watson are both fantastic in their respective portrayals, neither actress is given enough material nor explanation to really make the character believable. Several times we are led to assume that some form of enlightenment as to Michael and Jane's bond is just around the corner, but hints at an illicit romance and further family secret are dropped so quickly that you wonder why they were included at all. Adding to the trouble is the complete lack of chemistry between Reynolds and Watson, who fail to convince that they have known each other for more than a few hours, let alone twenty-odd years.
Sadly, this lack of character development runs throughout the movie, with the bullying Charles another example of an individual on the cusp of brilliance but just falling short. What should be a powerful and distressing abuse story is never explored in enough detail to really make it hit home, although Dafoe delivers a convincing and menacing turn as the dominant and controlling dad. The frequent flashbacks are never clearly sign-posted and Dafoe's brief moments of empathy come too late in proceedings to really make a difference. On top of that, the massive number of characters flitting in and out only serves to clutter the story and add to the confusion. Moss's feisty and promising Kelly is criminally deprived of screen time, while Watson's husband (George Newbern) is reduced to background decoration and the always likeable Gruffudd is so underused as college professor Addison that you wonder why they hired someone of his calibre for the part.
That being said, Reynolds manages to shine as the awkward, chain-smoking protagonist who is struggling to cope with his loss and understand his father. His sweet and innocent relationship with cousins Christopher and Leslie (blatantly a next-generation Michael and Jane) is one of the movie's strongest points (bizarre fish exploding notwithstanding), and his often immature responses and blackly comedic timing make him a likeable and identifiable character. Special kudos must also go to Roberts, who brings a welcome and motherly warmth during her meagre appearances, conflicted between her duty as a wife and love for her son.
In the end, Fireflies In The Garden plays out like a clichéd melodrama, complete with bickering family, unloved son, dramatic music and barren landscapes. There's no denying that it has its compelling moments and the odd touch of comedy, but ultimately there are too many characters and not enough explanations to make this rise about the typical family drama. The entire experience feels like it is leading up to a dramatic and well-needed climax, but sadly this never materialises and what we're left with is a run-of-the-mill yarn, albeit one with a stellar cast.
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