Fireflies In The Garden

Fireflies In The Garden


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

The title of this film is taken from a poem by Robert Frost. In it, fireflies try to emulate the real stars, symbolising the contrast between the “genuine” and the “imitation”. This family drama, loosely based on Lee’s life, focuses on the relationship between a son and his abusive, perfectionist father, for whom nothing the son tries to do can ever be good enough.

The story travels backwards and forwards in time, and is initially rather confusing as various family members are introduced. It opens with Charles (Willem Dafoe) and his wife Lisa (Julia Roberts) in their car with young son Michael (Cayden Boyd) in the back seat. The father is haranguing the boy for a minor misdemeanour and forces him to get out of the car and walk home in the rain. Lisa is seen comforting her son when she arrives home, to the disapproval of the father.

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Some years later, the family, including the now adult Michael (played by Ryan Reynolds), are gathering to celebrate Lisa’s graduation from the English department where her husband works. As Charles and Lisa approach in their car, their young nephew runs out into the road. Charles is forced to brake sharply, skidding the car, and Lisa, who is not wearing her seatbelt, is killed.

The film then moves between the aftermath of Lisa’s death, showing the repercussions throughout the family, and scenes from Michael’s childhood, as he still struggles to understand his father’s behaviour and cannot move beyond the damage it has caused him.

When Michael is a child, his mother’s sister, Jane, comes to stay with the family for the summer. The reason for this is never fully explained, though there is reference to a hospital visit, unexplained to Michael, hinting at an abortion. Jane is only a few years older than Michael and becomes his close friend. (The younger Jane is played by Hayden Panettiere and the older Jane by Emily Watson.) Jane witnesses Charles’ abusive behaviour towards his son and is herself given a long list of “the rules” of the house.

Lisa is also well aware of the situation. At her funeral she is described by Charles as “perfect”. The perfect mother who loves her son but constantly defends the abusing father. In one episode Michael is severely punished for reading out to an assembled audience of his father’s colleagues the poem by Robert Frost, having announced it as his own.

This makes for an absorbing drama. It has the feel of an authentic autobiography, where nothing is straightforward. The character of the father is complex, as are the son’s feelings towards him. “How long have we been like this? It couldn’t always have been like this.” The performances are good all round, especially those of Watson and Dafoe. One of the most touching moments in the film is his reaction to a scene from an old family video. In a second he conveys guilt, regret, relief.

The scenes with the young Michael are delicately handled. When Charles goes to his son’s bedside to tell him that he is going to try to change the sense of the boy’s deep fear and longing is chilling.

The ending is less convincing, turning rather too quickly to a note of optimism and leaving many questions unanswered. What did make Charles abuse his son? Disappointment? He felt himself to be a failure in his profession. Did his own father treat him the same way? He is seen to be loving towards his daughter and granddaughter. Was it guilt? The adult Michael is a writer and has with him the manuscript of his latest book (the title of which is the same as the film), which none of the family has yet read. Jane rounds on him about its publication. “Everyone will know!” And Michael says “Know what?” She laughs in disbelief that he doesn’t realise what she is talking about. Was it the abortion? Or was it something else?

In a scene from earlier years, Lisa prepares to leave Charles, accusing him of sleeping with “her”. It is not made clear who the woman is, and Charles denies it. Was it Jane? There is probably a natural reaction in all of us to turn on the bullied. The adult Jane, who always seemed to be on Michael’s side, turns on him in a moment of desperation for her own child, calling him a “shit trail”. “Everything you touch goes wrong.” Did this come from her own guilt? She later tells his wife not to hurt him, “Michael’s been hurt enough already.”

This is director Dennis Lee’s first feature film and a remarkable debut. Its serious tone will not appeal to everyone, but at its heart is something we can all recognise, the need to know that when life goes wrong, it wasn’t always that way.

Reviewed on: 19 May 2009
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A son struggles to deal with his abusive father.
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Director: Dennis Lee

Writer: Dennis Lee, based on the poem by Robert Frost.

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, Emily Watson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Julia Roberts, Ioan Gruffudd

Year: 2008

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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