Julia Roberts stars with Willem Dafoe, right, in "Fireflies in the… (Van Redin / Senator Entertainment )
With a top-drawer cast headed by Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson and others, "Fireflies in the Garden" is a story of a deeply dysfunctional family suddenly fraying even faster at the seams. Unfortunately there is as much fraying being done by the film itself, which partially explains why it's been on the shelf for years.
"Fireflies" unfolds in two separate eras — the abuse-marked childhood of Michael Taylor and about 20 years later as we catch up with the troubled but successful romance novelist he's become (Cayden Boyd plays the younger, Reynolds the older). Both eras are defined solely by family, primarily his nightmare of a father (Dafoe) and his long-suffering saint of a mother (Roberts).
The film essentially opens with a bad memory Michael is having as he's flying back home to celebrate the college graduation of his younger sister Ryne (Shannon Lucio). The worm turns when a car accident claims his mother's life on that very day, with Michael and Ryne coming upon the crash in front of the family home. So there's a funeral instead of a party, and lots of new bad memories to complicate the old.
"Fireflies" is the feature directing debut of Dennis Lee, who also wrote the script. The story was inspired in part by his mother's death a few years ago and the ways in which family history is defined and redefined through crises (though he hastens to clarify the bad father was not based on his dad).
He's given Reynolds' Michael a lot of emotions to chew on: a mother's death, an abusive childhood, the complicated feelings he has for — and, stay with me here — his parents then and now, his aunt then and now (Emily Watson playing the adult, Hayden Panettiere playing the teenage version), his niece and nephew now, who look a lot like he and his sister did then, his estranged wife (Carrie-Anne Moss) now, and of course, himself.
Michael's memories of his father, which comprise about half the film, paint a portrait of a monster. A much-admired college professor, Dafoe's Charlie has a mental mean streak aimed mostly at his son that involved harsh punishments when Michael was a kid — try standing for hours holding paint cans at shoulder height — and has morphed into verbal put-downs now that Michael has grown up.
Roberts' Lisa was forever the mediator — trying to mollify Charlie and patch up Michael's wounds. There's a pivotal summer when Aunt Jane comes to visit and puts herself squarely in Michael's corner. The grown-up Jane, though, seems to have shifted her allegiance to Charlie's camp, though there's no clue as to why. Deaths tend to expose family secrets, and Lisa's is no exception, with more complications emerging from letters Michael discovers and confusing old home movies he watches.
There's a strange sort of diffidence that seems to inhabit Dafoe and Roberts' performances, and the disconnect between the two Janes is simply insurmountable. Keeping up with who is who on the kid front, and who's done what and when, and who is feeling guilty for what and why in either era, is its own challenge. The look of both eras is captured nicely by director of photography Danny Moder, who was attached to the film before his significant other (Roberts). He gives the grimmer realities a sort of American Gothic portraiture style that quietly echoes the pathos of the piece.
The most potent moments come from the Michaels. Young Boyd is heartbreaking trying to survive his father's rage and Reynolds gives us a look at his substantial dramatic potential. It's always been right there under the surface — his cutting comedy style ("The Proposal") given its edge by a barely repressed rage, his superheroes ("Green Lantern," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine") forever hinting at a complicated mind. "Fireflies" is probably too convoluted to pave the way for more roles of this sort, but watching Reynolds get inside Michael's pain, you hope it won't be long until something will.