While Fireflies In The Garden hasn’t been delayed as long as the recently released Margaret, it’s been more than three years since this now-somewhat-musty drama had its Berlin Film Festival première, enough time for director Dennis Lee to have since completed a second feature, Jesus Henry Christ, which is currently on the festival circuit. In spite of an impressively starry cast, including Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Julia Roberts, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hayden Panettiere, and Ioan Gruffudd, there’s still no real need to rush to see this middling effort about the fights and reconnections experienced by a family gathered due to an unexpected tragedy, the most exceptional aspect of which is that Roberts, who appears mainly but not exclusively in flashbacks, plays Reynolds’ mother.
Reynolds stars as a successful romance novelist who heads home to celebrate his mother’s college graduation, but she dies in a car accident just as he arrives. It’s an awkward confluence of events that finds the already-gathered extended family attempting to grieve and catch up all at once. Reynolds stayed away because of his domineering English-professor father (Dafoe), who was crushingly hard on him as a boy and remains hostile and condescending to his son as an adult. Reynolds has recently finished the serious work his dad never believed he had in him—a book about his unhappy childhood that seems like an act of literary revenge against his remaining parent.
In glimpses of the past, Dafoe and Roberts have a dynamic that resembles a more heavy-handed variation on The Tree Of Life—he’s demanding, quick-tempered, and harsh, while she’s warm and patient, always smoothing things over in his wake. Fireflies In The Garden (named for a Robert Frost poem, though it also offers a scene of actual fireflies in an actual garden) prompts little sympathy for Dafoe’s character, who comes off as increasingly unpleasant as the film goes on. While the others assign blame for the falling-out to both men, the film is clearly on Reynolds’ side, a tendency that’s only supported by what he uncovers about his late mother while sorting through her things. An ending that suggests reconciliation and forgiveness isn’t just unearned, it’s bewildering, given the wretched behavior we’ve seen; it implies that the entire story was filtered through some unidentified unreliable narrator who wanted to take the higher ground while still harboring a serious grudge.