Film Review: Fireflies in the Garden

Julia Roberts plays ultra-sensitive artiste Ryan Reynolds’ noble mother—and that should basically tell you all you need to know about this misguided soapy bunch of bollocks which somehow made its way off the shelf into theatres.

Michael (Ryan Reynolds) is a romance writer who returns to his Midwest family home for the belated college graduation of his mother, Lisa (Julia Roberts). His visit is particularly fraught, largely due to his eternally troubled relationship with his abusive, controlling father Charles (Willem Dafoe). Sudden tragedy strikes, merely underlining the overall familial dysfunction.

Fireflies in the Garden
is a semi-autobiographical film by Korean director Dennis Lee, with definite accent on the “semi” as the characters are all lily-white. The film has been sitting on the shelf since 2008 and, despite its impressive cast, one can certainly see why. I don’t think this self-conscious, queasily “sensitive” soap opera would even get over on the Lifetime Channel (for women and gay men).

Lee has a very heavy directorial hand, submerging his film in annoyingly obvious music. His casting choices are suspect and he’s overly fond of confusing flashbacks, while his idea of character—and there are way too many of them—veers towards near-silent-movie stale archetypes. The twee title stems from a poem by Robert Frost which the young Michael (Cayden Boyd) haplessly tries to pass off as his own, and suffers a particularly brutal garage punishment from Daddy. The grown-up Michael is fond of putting explosives in captured frogs and killing fireflies with a tennis racket, which, for all of Lee’s straining to posit him as a deeply feeling artiste, may make you just think, “What a juvenile creep.”

This is one of the visually ugliest films of the year, with Danny Moder’s cinematography lending everything a sickly, garish yellow hue. The fact that he is Roberts’ husband is rather unsettling, as this famous beauty has never appeared to less physical advantage. Granted, she’s playing older (see her gray hair!), but Lisa, a tiresomely saint-like paragon of goodness, despite the way she enables Charles’ viciousness, seems a particularly bad, too-easy role choice for this actress if she wants to slide easily into character work.

Dafoe is hateful to a numbing degree, even outdoing Robert De Niro for meanness in This Boy’s Life, while Reynolds—who seems strangely gay here—has little opportunity to display the comedic chops he is so much more adept at than the weepy junk he has to emote here. There’s an unnecessary plethora of other family members as well, as if Lee thought the more people, the more depth they’d lend. Emily Watson displays a refreshingly sensible moment or two as Michael’s aunt Jane Lawrence (like Roberts, the casting is again distractingly too young in this instance), who is played as a child by Hayden Panetierre, and rarely has there been such an unconvincing young-to-older matchup of performers.

At the film’s tidily happy wind-up—let the groan-inducing healing begin!—when Michael predictably decides to burn the scathing, trouble-making family memoir he has written, you only wish he’d also included every print of this abysmal effort.