Judge Gordon Sullivan has fire ants in his garden.
For one family, a chance to start again.
January is usually the month that Hollywood dumps its unwanted features on the world, films that it made but can't figure out how to market. Flicks that sounded good on paper but have tested poorly get released into the frozen wastelands of the pre-Oscar season. Some true stinkers get at least a few screens every year, so I'm always amazed when a solid-looking film with a decent cast takes years to get to the screen. That's the case with Fireflies in the Garden. It's a film that was made in 2008 starring Ryan Reynolds, Willem Dafoe, and Julia Roberts, but it didn't get even a limited theatrical release until 2011. I know that Ryan Reynolds wasn't the box office force he would become in a few short years, but with a solid dramatic premise and a cast like this there's no excuse for Fireflies in the Garden to not have wider exposure. Thanks to this DVD, fans of the actors will have a chance to appreciate a good, if not great, family drama.
The Taylors are a picture-perfect family. Charles (Willem Dafoe, The Boondock Saints) is an important professor, Michael (Ryan Reynolds, The Proposal) is a successful novelist, and Ryne (Shannon Lucio, Prison Break) has a bright career in law ahead of her. The family is gathered to celebrate the graduation of Lisa (Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman) from college years after taking a leave of absence to raise her children. When Lisa is killed in a car accident, the family is brought together by grief, and we slowly watch their beautiful surfaces crack under the tension.
Unsurprisingly, the main attraction of Fireflies in the Garden is its superb cast. Besides the few actors I mentioned above (Reynolds, Defoe, Roberts) Fireflies also features contributions from Emily Watson, Carrie Anne Moss, Ioan Gruffudd, and Hayden Panettiere. Because the film features flashbacks there are opportunities for roles to be doubled. Generally, the acting from the cast is superb. Occasionally there's a tendency to rely a bit on generic stereotypes, like when Willem Dafoe gets a bit overbearing as the family patriarch. However, the acting is generally top notch, especially for this kind of tear-jerking premise. Though things get a bit over-the-top in moments, for the most part the performances here are solid and affecting.
I'm still baffled as to why Fireflies in the Garden didn't get released immediately to strong reviews, but part of it might be that the film flouts expectations. The premise is ridiculously melodramatic. A tightly wound Midwestern family brought together by the death of their mother sounds like a recipe for a bad three-hanky picture. To a certain extent, Fireflies in the Garden is that film, complete with revelations, betrayals, and histrionics, but it doesn't immediately turn the emotion controls up to eleven and keep them there for all 89 minutes. Instead, Fireflies in the Garden goes for a bit of restraint, offering a number of quieter, more contemplative moments. This gives the melodramatic premise some breathing room that similar films have sorely lacked.
It helps that this is a solid DVD release. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is generally bright and clean, with a decent amount of detail in both close ups and longer shots. Darker scenes have appropriate black levels, and digital artifacts aren't a significant problem. The 5.1 surround track keeps the dialogue coming clean and clear out of the center channel, though there isn't much directionality or use of the surrounds. That's not a huge problem with a dialogue-driven drama like this one, though. The disc's lone extra is a 19-minute making-of featurette that plays like an extended EPK. Because of the length, there's plenty of time to mix interviews with most of the actors and writer/director Dennis Lee, along with footage from the finished film.
Fireflies in the Garden can be an understated, well-acted drama. It can also slip into cliché and rely on tired stereotypes of Midwestern, salt-of-the-earth simplicity. For everything it does right (and there's plenty), there's the feeling that it's not doing anything particularly new. In that way, the film fails to take any serious risks, relying solely on the actors to pull off a story that's not very different from a dozen other stories of heartache and pain in American families we've seen for decades. Another way to say this might be that Fireflies in the Garden is missing some essential spark that would take it from being good to being great.
Fireflies in the Garden is an above average family drama, but one that's not quite great. It features an excellent cast, and fans of any of the actors could do worse than spend a night with this film. The strong DVD presentation makes it easy to recommend for at least a rental.
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