Wednesday, 3 June 2009

[194] Fireflies in the Garden (2008)

Fireflies in the Garden is writer-director Dennis Lee's debut feature; a promising, if uneven, film, it is eventually toppled by its ambition and amassed star power.

The film is grounded in the familiar landscape of highly intellectual, yet dysfunctional, upper middle class American life (as seen in the work of Noah Baumbach, especially, such as Margot at the Wedding, or The Squid and the Whale). Ryan Reynolds leads as Michael, a young author whose strained, oedipal relationship with his English Literature Professor father Charles (Willem Dafoe), forms the most immediate of the many strands of the tangled narrative.

Indeed, Fireflies in the Garden's plot is tangled like untended cables, frustrating and chaotic, as opposed to, say, perfectly formed like a ball of twine. The narrative flits between present day and flashbacks to a particularly damaging summer during Michael's youth, introducing new characters, traumas and complications far into its 99 minute run-time. The cast is stuffed with high class talent, with Julia Roberts as the hemmed-in mother Lisa and two scene stealing performances by Emily Watson and Hayden Panettiere as Michael's young, feisty aunt Jane. Carrie-Anne Moss and Ioan Gruffudd also appear, late into the film, as wafer-thin wall-paper plotting - adding in an estranged fiancee for Michael, and a secret lover for the mother.

Lee obviously has talent, as this is an assured, confident work. Even if the direction often veers towards the overly dramatic and serious - with each cast member being assigned their sentimental 'Oscar moment' - there are still moments of quiet beauty and warmth. Fireflies is at its best during moments of innocuous levity, often involving the strong child actors as Jane's present-day kids. Watson and Reynolds in particular have a comfortable, playful chemistry, which is expanded into an unexplored pseudo-sexual connection in the flashbacks - where Panetierre is coy, and Cayden Boyd as Young Michael is confused.

For the most part, however, Fireflies in the Garden comes off as pompous and too self-serious; it attempts to highlight too many thematic touchstones - family politics, teenage sexuality, responsibility, maturity, independence, homecoming, and on and on - without having the tremendous skill necessary to either tie them together or cook up a worthy resolution. As it is, the film concludes anti-climactically, with a puzzlingly large proportion of its content dropped in favour of crystallising the father-son tension. Its cast may be uniformly impressive, especially Reynolds in an against-type role; unfortunately, those attracted to Fireflies in the Garden by the Big Name Actors will be presented with something promising, but diffuse.

Lee's flawed first film is immediately notable because of those attached to it, so he must grow up in public somewhat. Nevertheless, there is still enough quality in the film to make his next project, whatever it is, an interesting prospect.

Fireflies in the Garden is on general release now. See the trailer here.

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