Fireflies in the Garden, the debut film by writer-director Daniel Lee, was first screened at festivals back in 2008 but is only now receiving a domestic DVD release. For whatever reason, this solidly crafted ensemble drama was seemingly swept under the carpet. What makes this particularly noteworthy is the A-list cast which includes Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Julia Roberts, and Emily Watson. With names like that, you’d think the movie would have to be terrible to be buried like this. So it was a pleasant surprise to find a subtle, emotionally involving drama; well written and acted.
Fireflies in the Garden centers around Michael Taylor (played by Reynolds as an adult, Cayden Boyd as a child), who is the author of a string of popular chick-lit novels. His youth was excessively stressful due to relentless emotional abuse by Charles (Dafoe), his English professor father. His caring mother Lisa (Roberts) tows the line, trying to keep her mentally unstable husband’s temper tantrums at bay. Michael’s childhood is seen via flashbacks that occur throughout the movie, as the present finds him (and the rest of his family) grieving over Lisa’s car accident-induced death.
Lisa’s funeral brings the various Taylor family members together for a prickly reunion. Michael and his father still have an antagonistic relationship, made no less so by the somber circumstances. Michael’s younger sister Ryne (Shannon Lucio) gets along much better with their father and is concerned about the impending publication of a tell-all memoir Michael has written. Their aunt Jane (played by Watson as an adult, Hayden Panettiere in the flashbacks) was Michael’s best friend while growing up and is also on edge about family secrets being revealed. Adding little besides an unresolved, extraneous subplot, Carrie-Anne Moss is given too little screen time as Michael’s ex-wife, who joins the family for Lisa’s funeral.
The now-and-then format of Fireflies in the Garden offers an interesting examination of how adversarial relationships develop within families over the years. Though he has apparently mellowed somewhat in his senior years, Charles never felt Michael was good enough to share his last name and wasn’t afraid to let his son know. In one rather agonizing sequence, young Michael is forced to hold gallon-sized paint cans with his arms outstretched until he’s about to collapse. Why? He made the poor choice of reciting a Robert Frost poem (the source of the film’s title) for his father’s colleagues after Charles promised they would hear an original piece.
While directed by Lee in the rather stodgy style of a Hallmark channel production (probably the main reason for the critical distain and limited – almost non-existent – theatrical release in October, 2011), Fireflies in the Garden is a subtle, multi-layered slice of life. Given the subject matter, it’s not a barrel of monkeys, but there are flashes of humor, mostly thanks to Reynolds slightly off-beat performance. Dafoe does a remarkable job of keeping Charles from appearing to be a monster, instilling him with intelligence and an underlying decency. With her limited screen time, Roberts is underused but manages to exude warmth as Michael’s fiercely protective mother. Nearly walking away with the picture is Cayden Boyd as young Michael and Chase Ellison as Michael’s nephew Christopher. These adolescent actors deliver uncommonly nuanced performances.
Fireflies in the Garden has received a fairly bare bones treatment on DVD, with a 20-minute making-of featurette as its only supplement. We learn that the film is deeply autobiographical for writer-director Daniel Lee, but beyond that we hear praise from the principal participants typical of a standard EPK piece. With several subplots (not only the aforementioned thread involving Michael’s ex-wife, but also the hint that young Michael’s relationship with his only slightly older aunt Jane took a sexual turn) left undeveloped, I’m guessing there might’ve been considerable footage cut. The film is eighty-nine minutes but feels a little longer due to its languid pacing. Unfortunately, the DVD doesn’t address my suspicions as there are no deleted scenes included. But even with a few loose ends and unanswered questions, Fireflies in the Garden is still worth watching.