I'm sure that as a high-powered star making tons of blockbusters to feed the Hollywood machine, it feels nice to transport yourself back to your early days with a small movie that has any kind of message. Fireflies in the Garden seems like one of those meaningful movies, with despair nestled in a picturesque world. In the end, however, there are too many moments that feel fabricated for the sake of creating an "important" film. It just comes off a little false.
Taking its title from the Robert Frost poem of the same name, this movie focuses on the Taylor family that is facing challenges after a sudden death. Ruled by an abusive man Charles (Willem Dafoe) who clashes with his son Michael (Ryan Reynolds), they are the picture of a family who has drifted apart, islands in a sea of unspoken pain. Although in present day everyone is grown up and functioning, flashbacks explain how they became so estranged. To turn up the heat a little bit more, Michael's arrival coincides with a terrible accident that requires the family to lean on each other, which is exactly what they are in too much pain to do.
The film depicts Charles and Michael's relationship as being horribly abusive and cold. Charles is a master at berating his son and physically punishing him with the kinds of abuse that some people just call "character building," such as holding up paint cans with both arms. Michael's mother Lisa (Julia Roberts), taking the same path as so many cinematic good cops, stays silent but tries to pick up the pieces after every incident. It's no wonder the adult version of Michael is disassociated from the world around him. Now that he's old enough to fight back, the movie consists of scenes where we are either watching Michael cower from his father as a child, or strike out at him as a smart, snarky adult. The rest of the family sits in the same kind of quiet resignation that Lisa had, unable to change the dynamic.
Life carries on after the accident, with everyone awkwardly stumbling around each other and continuing to not talk about what's going on. The characters travel to plenty of places that are so beautiful they seem unreal (the movie was shot in Austin, Texas). Of course, the beauty doesn't stop them from emotional outbursts, but what do you expect when you refuse to discuss anything before it's been bottled up for a sufficient amount of time.
This is where the movie starts to get tricky, because it's mostly true to life in the respect that everyone wants to shut their eyes to what a monster Charles is. However, when Michael asks his aunt if she's read his new book (apparently a memoir of the abuse), she gets fired up and talks about how it will destroy his father. [SPOILERS] And apparently, at the end of the day, all it takes is one side getting tired of fighting for everything to be all hunky dory again. All of a sudden a home movie of Charles and Michael getting along pops up and Michael decides not to hold a grudge anymore. It seemed more motivated by a desire to tie everything up in a nice bow than to just let us wallow in this lost family's self-inflicted wounds.