Film Review: Flower

Max Winkler’s darkly funny film is a daringly tricky coming-of-age tale that both loves and heals its imperfect characters.
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Daringly foul-mouthed and often very funny, Max Winkler’s dark coming-of-age dramedy Flower would be a tricky film to navigate even without the backdrop of the colossal #MeToo movement. On top of that inevitable canvas, however, its world of sexual misbehavior and warped predators, with a pretend-mature (but emotionally unripe) teenage girl at the center, is simply a minefield. But, thankfully, it’s a mischievous and boldly entertaining one. Just be warned: Flower is likely to test your boundaries.

Winkler, to his credit, wastes no time dropping viewers into the middle of the discomfort zone and introducing various themes—including single parenting, teenage troubles, sexual maturity and abuse—that range from flawlessly realized to undercooked. With an adventurous script penned by Winkler, Alex McAulay and Ingrid Goes West director Matt Spicer, Flower begins in a remote L.A. location with the grunts of a policeman climaxing in his car. It’s a shocking sight when young Erica (a fearless Zoey Deutch, superbly balanced in a complex role) raises her head and emerges onscreen with a knowing grin. We quickly realize that this is a routine exercise for the underage 17-year-old. A self-defined vigilante of sorts, she habitually corners (much) older male pervs and films them with the help of her two best friends (Dylan Gelula and Maya Eshet) as she engages in consensual sexual activities with them and then pockets their money through blackmail.

It’s all for a cause. Living with her free-spirited single mother Laurie (Kathryn Hahn, typically magnetic), whose marriage-bound relationship with Bob (Tim Heidecker) she disapproves of, Erica plans to bail her too-good-to-be-true father out of jail to eventually live with him. Things get even more complicated for her when Bob’s son Luke (Joey Morgan), a quiet and emotionally disturbed teen recently out of rehab, moves in with them. Meanwhile, a regular player at a bowling alley Erica and her friends frequent enters the picture. An ex-teacher with a mysterious past, Will (Adam Scott) becomes Erica’s new adult target after Luke finally comes out of his shell and reveals details of Will’s scandalous history linked to his own troubled one.

Taking a sharp, unexpectedly serious turn, Flower abruptly morphs into a crime-tale/road-movie hybrid and unfolds as a guessing game: Between Luke and Will, who’s telling the truth and who’s conveniently altering the facts? This surprising segue doesn’t necessarily land all that convincingly. Like Erica and her friends, you sense the screenwriters searching for a plausible way to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, and the seams between tonal shifts ultimately show. Yet, the film bounces back from its temporary (and forgivable) messiness, toward a redemptive ending that both sympathizes with and tames its flawed young characters.

Sure, Winkler’s film is founded on an icky concept. And at times it assumes an attitude that comes dangerously close to mansplainy. Some of the mother-daughter conversations between Erica and Laurie lack the authentic depth we are now used to from female-helmed films like Lady Bird and The Edge of Seventeen. And Erica’s diary of penis picture drawings is simply a ridiculous detail that oversimplifies her sexual complexity and hidden anxieties through an awkwardly male lens. But let’s give credit where credit’s due: Flower ultimately doesn’t try to fit Erica into a clichéd, “sexually liberated cool girl” mold. In fact, it grants her the tools to dig her way out of that perception, helping her move back to the shelter of adolescence until she’s genuinely ready to step up as an adult. Along the way, Flower proves to have profound things to say about teenage depression, too. It’s an immense, admirable, imperfect package that displays courage.

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