In the world of Flower, what you see is rarely what you get. The film opens with a close-up of Malickian sun-dappled grass, but that natural grace is quickly underscored by the sexual grunts of a policeman receiving fellatio from 17-year-old Erica (Zoey Deutch) as her friends gather extortive evidence on their phones. Erica herself represents a misdirect for the men of her town, who see an opportunity for taboo pleasure before earning punishment from vigilante teenagers.
The plot kicks into gear with another surprise, as Erica and her mother (Katherine Hahn) accompany Erica’s future stepfather (Tim Heidecker) to pick up his son, Luke (Joey Morgan) from rehab — watching this obese boy in a purple windbreaker shuffle out, Erica gasps, “Junkies are supposed to be skinny!” Luke and Erica bond quickly over Luke’s painful past: in middle school, he accused a teacher, Will (Adam Scott), of molestation, though his account featured inconsistencies — a detail of no consequence to Erica, who seizes on a new opportunity to extort funds she needs to liberate her incarcerated father.
Flower struggles against its own contrasting impulses throughout. The story feints towards transgressive ideas but lacks the commitment for maximum impact. An explanation may lie in a writing credit shared by director Max Winkler, whose resume mostly consists of single-camera network sitcoms, and Matt Spicer, writer-director of Ingrid Goes West (novelist Alex McAuley is also credited and receives the “story by” credit). With its drab SoCal aesthetic, synth soundtrack and young women whose sprightliness masks dark impulses, it feels pitched to audiences who found Ingrid Goes West interesting but too upsetting. When the central quartet stakes out Will’s home hoping to catch him molesting a child, discomfort is balanced with sitcom-energetic writing and direction. When Erica asks if her friends want little kids to get “butt-raped,” eat their feelings and get fat, one chirps, “I don’t want anyone to get fat!” as Luke bangs his head on the upholstery in frustration.
The casting represents another frustrating imbalance. It’s natural Winkler would call in ringers from his TV work, and the actors are never less than engaging — no young performer is more appealing that Deutch (though she’s very clearly in her early 20s, sabotaging queasiness that could have been easily achieved by casting a teenager), and no actress balances hilarity and pathos better than Hahn. Their relationship has immense chemistry; Heidecker and Scott comfortably add to their respective portfolios of repressed nerds and Gen-X depressives, but their reassuring familiarity creates a safety net. It’s the less familiar faces, Morgan and Eshet, who are usually the most compelling, blending in with this slightly stylized suburban milieu and allowing maximum impact for the story’s Korine-esque grotesquerie.
Things get much worse for these characters before they get better, and there’s a slight relief in the epilogue that reveals this to have been a low-stakes cartoon all along. But that whiplash invites a different set of provocative questions than the film intended: should a story so concerned with the sexual and psychological needs of adolescent girls have been conceived and told by men? What at first seems intended as a cathartic revenge fantasy for the #MeToo era looks more like a Men’s Rights Activist fever dream around the midpoint, then ends with a grin and a shrug that exhibits the creators’ privilege to play with these ideas without considering their responsibility to handle them with care. While often engaging on a moment-to-moment basis, a film that wants to be everything to everyone — Todd Solondz by way of Adam McKay — ends up in limbo, fully satisfying for no one.
Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren) is a staff writer for Bright Wall Dark Room. A graduate of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, his writing has been featured in New Limestone Review and Furious Gazelle. He wrote and directed the indie feature film ‘West of Her,’ available now for digital purchase and rental. Ethan also wrote the award-winning play ‘Why Are You Nowhere?’ He lives in the Boston area with his wife Caitlin and their daughter Nora.