“Fireflies in the Garden” is the cinematic equivalent of going out to dinner with your friend’s family and then having to watch them all fight like cats and dogs the whole time: it’s got to be worse for the people going through it, but you sure as hell have no interest in watching it. Writer-director Dennis Lee, who I can only imagine drew from a deep well of personal experiences – or if he didn’t, clearly suffers from dysfunction envy – created this vivid tale of an embittered writer returning to his childhood home to confront a troubled past. But he failed to realize that personal catharsis isn’t the same as popular entertainment, especially if the characters barely qualify as real people, which is why the only thing more false in “Fireflies in the Garden” than its flaccid melodrama is its clichéd emotional redemption.
Turning his familiar, quick-witted charm into an antagonistic defense mechanism, Ryan Reynolds plays Michael Taylor, an author of bestselling fluff who flies home to visit his folks for some unspecified (or at least unmemorable) family gathering. Upon his arrival, however, Michael discovers that his taskmaster father Charles (Willem Dafoe) crashed into a tree after one of his preteen cousins ran out into the street, and his mother Lisa (Julia Roberts) was killed in the accident. Charles is appropriately inconsolable, but to Michael, that remorse comes too late: through flashbacks we see how Charles bullied and berated both Michael and Lisa during Michael’s childhood, shaping him into the angry, disengaged adult he’s now become.
Rekindling his relationship with his cousin Jane (Emily Watson), who now lives in his childhood home, Michael slowly begins to reflect on his abusive upbringing, remembering how as a teenager (played by Hayden Panettiere) Jane helped him through many of the toughest times. But after his alcoholic ex-wife Kelly (Carrie-Anne Moss) shows up unexpectedly to support him at the funeral, Michael spends the next few days reconnecting with family members he held at a distance, eventually discovering that he might be as much responsible for who he’s become as the father he’s always blamed.
The last sentence in that synopsis is true only in theory -- one can only presume that Lee wanted self-discovery and catharsis to be the result Michael’s journey. But the rest of the movie plays like a clumsy collection of bad-parenting clichés that are so amplified by bad writing and even worse acting that it’s impossible to get invested in any of the characters in a real or meaningful way. In just the opening scene of the film, for example, young Michael rides through a rainstorm in the back seat of a car Charles is driving, and the father constantly criticizes his son for putting his hands on the windows, losing his glasses, and otherwise being a “Mr. Smartypants.” Eventually, Charles exasperatedly stops the car, forces Michael to get out, and tells him to walk in the pouring rain to their home, which is nowhere in sight. Even with Julia Roberts’ furrowed brow expressing worry about Michael’s well-being, how could these ever be anything other than two terrible parents?
Amazingly, things actually get worse: after Michael recites a poem to Charles’ colleagues that is plagiarized from Robert Frost (the namesake of the film, in fact), Charles takes his son out to the garage and makes him hold paint cans at shoulder level, while Lisa bangs on the door, asking “what’s going on in there?” It comes as no surprise to the audience, and with quite profound justification, that Michael plain hates his dad, so when the two of them square off as adults, there’s almost a sense of satisfaction that Charles, the bully, no longer has the upper hand. But inexplicably, Lee frames their fights as some sort of unfortunate, no-fault family tragedy, even as he piles on Charles’ infractions against both Michael and Lisa. Lee seems unaware that by not taking her children and leaving Charles, Lisa is equally culpable for their abuse, and by the last time she’s tried charming his tears away with their secret mother-son exchange, “Love you big”/ “love you bigger,” we’ve lost all sympathy for her as well.
Meanwhile, casting Panettiere as the younger Jane suggests that the role is somehow meant to be instrumental to Michael’s life, but the lack of payoff to Watson and Reynolds’ cryptic conversations as grown-ups -- either in their timeline or in flashbacks -- makes her superfluous as well. (And Michael’s younger sister, played by Shannon Lucio, seems to somehow avoid any of these conflicts, which is why at any age she’s consistently irrelevant to the plot.)
Although Julia Roberts contributes little legitimacy to any movie in which she’s supposed to be likeable – her specialty is playing jerks, and she’s great at it – in 'Fireflies,' the actress manages to be at worst inoffensive playing a character that resembles the literal, low-rent version of Jessica Chastain’s maternal embodiment of “Grace” in “The Tree of Life.” (Less effective is her old-age makeup, which Lee uses only for the opening accident scene, and which sticks out in stark contrast to the absence of aging, past or present, in Charles.) Meanwhile Willem Dafoe, perhaps the single most inconsistent actor this side of Nicolas Cage, delivers a performance that’s only slightly less subtle than his turn as the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man.” One can only imagine the complex interior life that Dafoe created for Charles, but as the character is depicted in the film, he is a truly irredeemable monster, and the film’s efforts to humanize him in Michael’s adulthood are all but unforgivable, narratively speaking.
As Charles, Reynolds taps into a convincing wealth of pain that he almost conceals with humor, but as the actor gets older, he continues to discover the kind of stillness that makes both funny and serious moments more effective. However, it’s a shame that other than the way it’s photographed, Lee’s movie doesn’t do the same thing; despite a saturated, almost pastoral visual style that provides plenty space for the dramatic conflict to linger and reverberate, the writer in him is too impatient and too obvious, as he’s finding ways for these characters to collide. That said, there will undoubtedly be some viewers who look at this story and see nothing but substance, specificity and authenticity, saying that emotional and physical abuse is all too common, and all too commonly ignored. But if abuse is never going to get addressed, then it doesn’t count as being explored, especially if all of its effects are forgotten instantly, when the people involved get to share one “special” moment many years later.
Ultimately, Lee’s film isn’t telling a bad story, but it’s using bad storytelling, specifically by aiming for slice-of-life realism, constructing it out of theatrical scenarios, and then undercutting their intensity with a wish-fulfillment finale. In which case, hopefully Lee will look at the film’s overdue release as that uplifting payoff after a troubled upbringing and push forward from there. Especially since there’s going to be at least one viewer in the theater who will learn from the experience, even if he doesn’t: if nothing else, “Fireflies in the Garden” makes it abundantly clear that when you’re suffering that much, it’s not worth sticking around just to see how things turn out. [D]