Fireflies in the Garden might not resonate as one of the most touching films you’ll ever see. In many ways it comes across as an archetypal melodrama about members of a fractured family unit struggling to coexist with one another in the wake of a tragedy. But in all fairness the movie is not completely devoid of charm. The charm however is derived almost entirely from the performance of Ryan Reynolds.
Reynolds defies his usual shtick by playing Michael Taylor an introverted malcontent novelist whose return home to visit his unhappy family coincides with a car accident that kills his mother (Julia Roberts). Michael’s struggle is based in his relationship with his father (Willem Defoe) himself a failed writer who took his self-loathing out on his son throughout Michael’s childhood. When Michael’s young aunt Jane (Hayden Panetierre in the flashback scenes Emily Watson in the present day scenes) comes to live with the family she and her nephew—who is only a year or two younger than her—develop a strong bond that keeps Michael going despite his misery.
The film wavers in its presentation of this story. There are scenes that do feel a little hammy and uninspired but Reynolds’ interactions with his aunt and his young cousins add a bit of humanity to the movie.
Unfortunately little else manifests with much positivity. Although few of the performances are notably poor the characters are too flat for the otherwise talented actors to really make anything substantial of them. The most determined example of this is Willem Defoe’s antagonistic patriarch character Charles. The character is a grab bag of traits exemplified by abusive parents in film and television. Although he is portrayed as obsessed with his son’s and his own intellectualism some of his torments of young Michael (Cayden Boyd) seem to drift from the theme of his character.
Charles is not the only individual in the film who seems inconsistent. There seems to be no discernible trace of young Jane in old—and more significantly no attempt at an explanation of how such a drastic character change did unfold.
Dennis Lee makes his feature directorial debut with Fireflies in the Garden which as we learn in the special feature is an autobiographical story. There are aspects of his script that to stand out with potential. Michael’s inability to act appropriately with his young cousins is the most interesting part of the film and it proves that Lee is capable of creating some very good material. Perhaps a film centered on this type of sometimes uncomfortably-off relationship would suit the writer/director better in a future filmmaking endeavor.
The shooting of the movie is discussed in the DVD’s sole special feature “A Flash of Life: The Making of Fireflies in the Garden.” In this twenty-minute feature the director and cast lend a good deal of conversation to the emotionality of the story. The script written by director Dennis Lee is inspired by his own personal experiences with the death of his mother. Lee and stars Reynolds and Panetierre engage in the gravity of the story and its transcendence to film.
Without any additional special features the DVD is a little empty. Considering the personal nature of the story to writer/director Lee you’d expect an audio commentary accompanying the film at least—perhaps with insight unto which elements were inspired by reality and which were created to better serve the story.
Fireflies opens doors on a few interesting stories but does not satisfy many of them completely. A more specific look at the making of the film would suit a personal story like this better—the featurette included keeps things pretty vague. All in all the film is not bad but flawed although its performers do show a good deal of promise.
The Heroes star made the movie with Julia Roberts and Willem Dafoe in 2007 but it only landed a U.S. distributor earlier this year (11) - and the cast reconvened on the red carpet.
Panettiere admits it was wild to meet Cayden Boyd again - the teenager played Ryan Reynolds as a bespectacled boy in the film.
She says, "He's one good-looking kid... He had to leave (the premiere) last night because he's a homecoming prince (at school)."