Cinema's unhappy families

With a dysfunctional family at its heart, Dennis Lee's Fireflies in the Garden joins an illustrious, continent-crossing tradition
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The Independent Culture

When pensive author Michael Waechter (Ryan Reynolds) flies across America to a family celebration in his midwestern hometown it's a clear signal that his family is far from perfect. It's a common truth that characters in movies only fly home to see their family if they don't really get along.

In Fireflies in the Garden, our hero, Waechter, believes that, despite being a successful writer of romantic novels, his more literary and overbearing father (Willem Dafoe) will always be disappointed in him. Seeking cathartic revenge he has written a soon-to-be-published novel about his crazy family upbringing. There is tension in the air when Michael is picked up at the airport by his fussy sister (Shannon Lucio), which is only broken by the tragic news that their mother (Julia Roberts) has died in a car crash. This is the cue for a series of flashbacks jumping the action from past to present in which we expect to see why this family is so nuts.

We learn that his father was always cold and distant, and that his aunt Jane (Emily Watson and, in the flashbacks, Hayden Panettiere), once mischievously kooky, has now settled into adult responsibility. Michael himself, it's revealed, was a bit of a brat. The family problems are a little more obvious than with previous dysfunctional families on screen, but a truly stellar cast has been attracted to this script.. The family in crisis is a favourite topic of movies and the arguments, silences and occasional wars between blood relations has produced some of the most memorable moments in cinema.

Most films that revolve around a big feast or festival will usually boil down to the zany antics of a family. In American cinema these films usually involve a Thanksgiving dinner. The all-time classic example being Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, in which the important connection between food and family is highlighted over the course of not one but three Thanksgiving dinners.

The central story revolves around the accountant Elliot (Michael Caine), whose marriage to nurturing Hannah (Mia Farrow) is somewhat complicated by the fact that he's fallen in love with her more sensitive sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), who is married to an artist Frederick (Max von Sydow). Also at the occasional dinner is nervous third sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), Hannah's neurotic ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) and the sisters' warring parents (Maureen O'Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan), an alcoholic and an adulterer, respectively. Now that's dysfunctional.

Ingmar Bergman famously highlighted the craziness of Christmas with a charming sequence in his great family drama Fanny and Alexander, when we are first introduced to Alexander, our guide to the fictional Ekdahl family. The world he inhabits with his sister Fanny, is thrown into turmoil when their father dies, and their mother remarries a stern, authoritarian figure. The extended family contains philanderers, paupers, and difficult wives. The lives of the eponymous characters are further complicated when their grandmother (Gunn Wallgren) decides to house them.

A more recent classic of the family-in-crisis-at-the-dinner-table subgenre is Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, a harrowing tale about a grown-up son who is ignored by his relatives when he announces at his father's 60th birthday party that he was sexually abused by his dad. Unlike in Fireflies in the Garden the reconciliations are messy. Todd Solondz's Happiness takes a similar look at family secrets that no one wants aired. The Jordan family is dominated by women and the action revolves around three sisters (Jane Adams, Cynthia Stevenson and Lara Flynn Boyle), so repressed that it's almost surprising that their father (Ben Gazzara) has waited until his daughters have grown up and two have got married before he tells his wife (Louise Lasser) that he would quite like to live alone. Greta Garbo has nothing on him.

Solondz is obsessed with family life and his films often focus on the destruction that those bound by blood wreak on one another. Yet his families often lack love. For many the quirky tales relayed by Wes Anderson seem more in touch with reality. Anderson can't help but laugh at the inadequacies of the family unit, yet he also admires the warmth and loyalty between relations. The Royal Tenenbaums, about a gaggle of former child prodigies who reunite when one of the clan announces he has a terminal illness comes with the great tag line, '"Family isn't a word ... it's a sentence." And in his 2007 film The Darjeeling Limited, about three brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman) searching India for their free-spirited mother (Anjelica Huston), the director captures the poignancy of sibling relationships.

The Darjeeling Limited is unusual in that it's about a mother who has little time for her children. The more usual tale is of children abandoning their parents and such is the conundrum facing the protagonists in Yasujiro Ozu's classic Tokyo Story. The Japanese tale, like so many of the classic family dramas, revolves around death and regret. It seems that only the most calamitous events are enough to bring some families together.

It's the family divides rather than the gangster lifestyle that make the Corleones such entertaining personalities in the Godfather trilogy. Before Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his spawn turned up, American gangster films were all about flashy glamour and masculine bravado. Coppola, whose films often revolve around warring brothers, created intrigue by looking beyond external appearances and taking a look behind closed doors. Even glamorous gangsters have to deal with everyday problems and the insecurities created within the family unit. It's no surprise that it's babysitting duties rather than a bullet that finally bring about Don Vito's ultimate demise.

When Michael (Al Pacino) gives Fredo (John Cazale) the kiss of death, he encapsulates all the contradictions and conflicts that can come with a shared surname. Despite knowing that he has ordered his bumbling brother's death, crime boss Michael can't help but seek forgiveness.

It's often in the films that we least expect to revolve around family issues that the best rivalries emerge. None more so than in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull where the fights between the La Motta brothers (played by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci) are better than anything that takes place in the ring.

Dysfunctional families are what unite world cinema, from Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, to Ousmane Sembene's African tales such as Mooladé and Luchino Visconti's The Leopard. The whole world can relate to the theme .

'Fireflies in the Garden' is out now