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.