Fireflies in the Garden

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
Fireflies in the Garden Movie Poster Image
Uneven drama about unhappy family, including tragedy.
  • R
  • 2011
  • 89 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Only the mother in this family shows much sign of caring for the people in the clan, and her efforts don't really engender much affection between the others. There's plenty of hostility and even more suppressed anger, and the few scenes that show tenderness and caring serve to soothe people after bitter arguments.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The mother is selfless and caring, but even she has hidden secrets. Everyone else lets their anger control them.


Several very intense arguments, including one that escalates into violence when a tween boy is so enraged that he attacks his father. Some scenes feature a father who metes out punishments so harsh they border on cruel. Much of the movie's action is precipitated by a terrible car accident.


One scene features two former lovers who connect during an emotional party. The sounds of their coupling are heard from the next room.


Relatively frequent swearing includes "s--t," "a--hole," "hell," "Jesus Christ" (as an exclamation), and multiple uses of "f--k."


One character prefers expensive German cars, including a Mercedes Benz and a Porsche.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One character smokes cigarettes in several scenes, and some people drink wine at social events.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Fireflies in the Garden is a drama starring Julia Roberts and Ryan Reynolds about the relationship between a domineering father, the son who grows up to despise him, and the mother who keeps the family together until an unexpected tragedy throws the entire household into despair. The father rules the household through his anger and his often-cruel punishments, creating a portrait of a deeply unpleasant place to grow up. There are several intense arguments and a good bit of swearing (including "f--k" and "s--t"), as well as some scenes that seem to come close to child abuse. One off-screen sex scene includes overheard noises.

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What's the story?

Charles (Willem Dafoe) is about to be named president of a university when a tragic accident upends his family. His son, Michael (Ryan Reynolds), returns to the family home where his father terrorized him growing up and only his mother (Julia Roberts) was there to stand between him and his dad's rage. As the family comes to terms with the accident, Michael tries to understand more about his mother's life and explores whether he can learn to forgive his dad. The film is told in two time periods, when Michael is a boy and then as an adult who can't forgive his father for the way he was raised.

Is it any good?

FIREFLIES IN THE GARDEN boasts a stellar cast and an unsatisfying script. Writer-director Dennis Lee has created a family that feels truly terrible -- so awful, in fact, that it makes viewers wonder why the mother would bear to stay with such a brute. Michael seems both sensible yet disturbed that he hates his father so much, but given what we see of his upbringing, it's impossible to imagine any other outcome.

Dafoe does an excellent job of terrorizing his son (and the audience) as a slightly deranged father. In fact, except for a few scenes in which he's entertaining his great-niece, the character has almost no screen time in which he's not portrayed as a violent. cruel brute. No wonder Michael has written a novel that's a barely disguised memoir about his dysfunctional family. And that's what makes the movie's ending so baffling and sunsatisfying. After completely convincing the audience that Charles has no redeeming features and can't be forgiven, Michael makes a decision that seems dramatic on the screen yet makes no sense at all.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the relationship between the father and son. Why is the father so controlling? Why does he treat his son with such cruelty? What are the effects of growing up around violence and abuse?

  • What message do you think the filmmaker is communicating through Fireflies in the Garden? Are his methods effective?

Movie details

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For kids who love family stories

Themes & Topics

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