A successful young man returns home for a family celebration. An unexpected family tragedy changes the whole trajectory of his visit. This is an opportunity to confront a few family conflicts that have never been resolved, and it allows us a retrospective and introspective look into the man’s childhood, which is shown in flashback as the man deals with his present.
This is the brief synopsis of the film. It sounds like other similar arthouse family-centred movies, but what sets it apart is its stellar cast and the fact it is a Hollywood project with a first-time director. The producers’ gamble has paid off, as director Dennis Lee, fresh from an Oscar for his short Jesus Henry Christ, manages to handle his stars with a very light touch. They play beautifully together in a harmonic and subtly nuanced ensemble piece.
Having said that, despite the brilliant acting, the script isn’t that tight; after a promising start you can pick out inconsistencies and unresolved tensions throughout. The heart of the movie is the problematic relationship between Michael (Ryan Reynolds) and his father Charlie (Willem Dafoe), with his mother Lisa (Julia Roberts) as the loving ‘buffer’ stuck in between and trying to mediate daily life as best she can.
The other characters who gravitate around them are Michael’s wife (Carrie-Anne Moss), and Michael’s aunt Jane (played by Emily Watson in the present and by Hayden Panettiere in flashback). The problems in the on-off relationship between Michael and his wife are mentioned but seem to be resolved with a bonk in the afternoon – if only things were ever that easy! Likewise, the relationship between Michael and his aunt Jane remains frustratingly unresolved, and their ‘big secret’ undisclosed.
We know they helped each other cope with their teenage problems in a pivotal distant summer many years ago, but was there more? It is suggested, but it serves no purpose whatsoever as it isn’t explored. Likewise, the Julia Roberts’ character is given some depth in the flashbacks, but her full potential is left untapped. What’s left for us to sink our teeth into is the thorny father-son relationship. Beautifully played by a despotic Dafoe and a vulnerable Cayden Boyd (excellent), it’s yet another of those painful father-son screen relationships that will linger in the mind after the movie has ended.
We never really find out what is at the root of it, and the ending glosses over a whole lifetime of conflicts between them, and hints that it’ll be ok – as there’s a baby on the way – and leaves it at that.
Fireflies In The Garden is on general UK release on the 29th of May.