Dir. Dennis Lee. US. 2008. 98 minutes.

Some fine performances are compromised by a confusing script in first-time director/screenwriter Dennis Lee's often-involving family melodrama, Fireflies In The Garden. So much of the film is so delicately accomplished, and sports such evident star power as Julia Roberts and Willem Dafoe, that it's a shame that a huge amount of audience energy has to be expended simply trying to keep the characters straight.

Occupying two different time periods, it helps a bit that the film's past is shot in slightly more saturated colours, but it's not enough to mitigate what will surely be widespread viewer frustration.

This factor, as well as dissatisfaction with some of the film's more melodramatic aspects and its unconvincing happy ending in which loose emotional ends are either rapidly tied up or brazenly overlooked, will mute critical response on its theatrical release. But life on DVD should be solid.

Lisa Taylor (Roberts), the central character around whom all else revolves, has endured a troubled marriage with Charles (Dafoe) that has produced two children, Michael (Reynolds), now a semi-successful novelist married to a recovering alcoholic (Moss), and Ryne (Lucio), a promising law student.

As the clan, which also includes Lisa's younger sister (Watson) and her own family, gathers to celebrate Lisa's delayed graduation from university, she is killed in a tragic automobile accident. The subsequent funeral, as is usual in this kind of movie, unleashes long-simmering family squabbles and dark, dark secrets are either revealed or hinted at.

Filmmaker Lee is very good at directing individual scenes and Fireflies In The Garden has more than its share of emotionally-involving moments that are powerfully articulated. The scenes can sometimes feel very written, however.

Lee is equally accomplished at subtly evoking common human situations like what it feels like to go home after a long absence. Along with this goes a talent for directing actors, and the performances, both in the primary roles as well as the secondary ones, are convincing and often quietly moving.

Relative newcomer Reynolds is especially excellent as the estranged son of Willem Dafoe's bullying father -- it also helps that, as the brooding novelist, he is awarded the script's best dialogue.

Unlike some movies that intercut the past and the present, Julia Roberts' very pregnant body serves as a clear visual marker as to which time period we are in.

The problem is that there are so many different layers of aunts and uncles, of varying age relationships, that it's nearly impossible to tell who is who, especially when the actors playing the younger characters in the past don't much resemble their counterparts in the present.

One imagines, with regret, that clarifying these relationships at the script stage wouldn't have been all that difficult.


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