Naomi, played with surly grace by Maho Ukai is a sulky city kid with dyed, pale orange Lion King hair and a sullen pout that’s projected in the direction of her exasperated parents. The opening moments of Welshman John Williams‘s film are a giggling homage to teen girl life in Nagoya: Naomi paints her nails instead of paying attention to algebra, she bunks off school, stays out late and teeters around town on clunky-heeled shoes. She spends her nights out drinking beer at house parties and clubs and her days accompanying her best friend to dubious photo-shoots as a way of making extra money. It’s the classic case of nice girl going off the rails, as her mother and father’s relationship falters and fails. Mum is having an affair whilst Naomi’s bewildered dad sits on the sofa, drinking too much, and dismissing his daughter’s taste in music with the expected ‘the bands these days aren’t up to much’.
When her mum finally deserts the family home, her dad decides to send Naomi to her aunt to the country for the summer until things get on a more even keel in their small cramped flat in the concrete wilderness of Nagoya. Self-centred Naomi is more than reluctant. There’s the chores of the dilapidated hot-springs hotel that her aunt runs to contend with, the annoyingly pestering presence of Yumi (Etsuko Kimata), who has learning difficulties, and the added indignity of having to look in on Mrs Koide (Yoshie Minami), an elderly women who’s growing increasingly confused and forgetful.
But it’s here, in the slow-paced countryside, accompanied by the melancholy drift of musical director Paul Rowe’s soundtrack and a chorus of insects, that Naomi begins to change. She gradually becomes intrigued by Mrs Koide’s past – the elegant elderly lady’s fragmentary conversation hints at an illicit love affair in her youth and a film role – and starts to relish the time she spends with her. She makes friends with Yumi, but in a pleasing bit of nasty realism, is still capable of reverting to pure mean girl – when Naomi’s holiday romance with the motorcycle delivery guy doesn’t work out, it’s Yumi who bears the brunt of her disgruntledness.
Williams is determined to avoid the sentimentality so beloved of happy-ever-after Hollywood. He rejoices in leaving matters ambiguous, unsolved, unresolved. Watching Firefly Dreams is like looking at series of framed pictures – glimpses from doorways, a view from a window, a shot from a corner of a beautiful lit room, suggest the story or imply the past without explicitly explaining what exactly has gone on. The film seems made up of beguiling moments – Yumi and Naomi building a 3D jigsaw of the Eiffel Tower, Mrs Koide asleep on her chair, Naomi dreaming at her feet, the two cousins splashing in a riverside pool.
The beautifully filmed countryside adds to the sense of dreamy enchantment, a perennial reminder of the importance of nature in a world being transformed by speedy consumerism and careless consumption. The shady pine forests of Horaicho, the river, the lonesome roads that Naomi cycles along with a particular joy are a glorious part of this subtle and understated coming of age tale. Firefly Dreams is just lovely, an unmissable meditation on memory and loss and growing up.