There’s a sense of emotional paralysis about Fireflies in the Garden, perhaps derived from placing fine actors such as Willem Dafoe (as Charles) and Emily Watson (as Jane) in a room and constraining them to a kind of cinematic practice that leaves no space for a single glance that hasn’t been previously accounted for. The actors are left to go through the motions of a sterile script that director Dennis Lee tries to bring to life not through, for example, Watson’s brilliant capacity for facial nuance, but through canned artifice. Here the cues that supposedly signify sadness, or any intense emotional state, are delivered by the familiar piano-and-violin track, or the entrance of a character in a room with a startled face followed by forced dialogue that may suggest the alcoholism of a character, or an incestuous relationship between others. Instead of unexpected moments of violence, these bits of pseudo-drama feel like gratuitous, and failed, attempts at finding some sort of gravitas in this depressing story about Michael (Ryan Reynolds), a cynical writer returning home to grieve sudden maternal death and whose autobiography would probably be called something like A Child Is Being Beaten.
Yet not every sad story is a moving story, especially when the camera never lingers and the written word is all a character has to convey its reason for being. Lee’s heavy-handed approach in Fireflies in the Garden makes no room for metaphor, happy accidents, or raw drama. It’s hard to take the horrors of child abuse and the death of a mother as something other than staged narrative events when you cast Julia Roberts (her husband, Danny Moder, is the film’s director of photography) as the frumpy mother and Hayden Panettiere as the not-so-welcome young aunt. Very little of it is believable, none of it engaging. It’s also a shame that, though the film may think of the sexual attraction between nephew (Reynolds) and aunt (Watson) as one of its emotional weight guarantors, it doesn’t have the daring to suggest any of it cinematically. Its flashback images of child physical punishment, a major pillar for the narrative, also feel dully sterilized; when Charles forces young Michael to lift two heavy buckets of paint in a stress position that may qualify as “enhanced interrogation technique,” we see the TV advertising-looking geeky-glasses-wearing child’s face in well-composed pain, and we hear a very non-hysterical Roberts politely trying to intervene.
It would be too generous to assume it’s this lack of madness, of yelling, of noise, of expression, that is the very point of the film. This is no critique of the way suburbia bottles up its traumas politely in nondescript flasks and goes on about its business. It wants to be a serious drama, yet Fireflies in the Garden‘s pretensions get stuck in the way it wants to speak about human loss while keeping the nitty-gritty of its horrors, its visible ugliness, at a safe distance—a technique suburbanites excel at indeed, but one that the film makes no conscious usage of. Especially clumsy is the scene that gives the film its title, a poetic interlude that has Michael and his little cousins hitting fireflies with tennis racquets for no reason whatsoever—an oneiric mode that one wishes had contaminated the rest of the film.