This sophomore feature from filmmaker Dennis Lee is another strong family melodrama, featuring a memorable cast and a few remarkably well-written moments. Writer/director Lee made his mark with a short film entitled Jesus Henry Christ in 2003, which he later adapted into his first feature in 2011 with a much larger budget and a cast of recognizable faces and name actors. Fireflies in the Garden attracted an even large cast, even including Julia Roberts in a smaller role. So why is it that most audiences have never heard of this film? Probably for many of the same reasons it is only now being released, although it premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008.
The A-list cast makes up a professionally successful and emotional dysfunctional family of odd connections. Aunts are only a few years older than their nephew and this throws the whole dynamic into shift, but it is not the age differences which cause all of the problems in the family. It all seems to come down to the family patriarch, Charles (Willem Dafoe). Although he is a scholarly genius, Charles has a wicked temper and insists on having everyone around him act in the fashion he sees fit. This makes for a difficult childhood for Charles’ only son, Michael (Ryan Reynolds) who grows up to be a successful and unhappy romance novelist.
The only thing which has kept the family together over the years has been matriarch Lisa (Roberts), a loving and devoted mother to Michael even through the rampaging of his father. As a kid, Michael also greatly admired Lisa’s sister, his aunt (played by Hayden Panettiere at a younger age and Emily Watson later on). All of these relationships come flooding back to Michael, along with the memories of his stressful childhood, when he returns home after an accident occurs.
It may be a little too heavy-handed, more than occasionally sappy and drawn out, but I found Fireflies in the Garden to be and enjoyable film if only for the dedicated cast. Only Dafoe ends up coming off more as a caricature of the angry father, with his cliché silently devoted wife by his side. This storyline is a bit unbearable, while there are many other moments within the film that are worthwhile and deserving of praise.
The DVD includes only a brief making-of featurette. It is not surprising to see such a bare release, especially considering how long it took for this film to be released in the first place.