Max Winkler’s Flower belongs to that modern strain of filmmaking that portrays generation Z with a crass and very frank eye towards swinging bravado sexuality, language that flows beyond snark and, of course, personal identities contextualized solely through the lens of their cell phones.
All of this is summed up perversely in the film’s opening scene in which high school student Erica (Zoey Deutch) is giving oral pleasure to a slovenly dressed police officer in the front seat of his cruiser while her friends situate themselves quietly outside, recording the event for posterity … and personal finance. After sucking him dry (literally and figuratively) and forcing him to an ATM machine to pull out money (the exorbitant amount of $400), which he does peacefully but regretfully, Erica quips, “let’s go to Dairy Queen.”
And so begins Flower and its queasy balance between smart comedy and off-putting sexual acrobatics. Things don’t stop at prostitution and extortion, but eventually wind into molestation and murder. That lead actress Zoey Deutch survives the melee while actually continuing to polish her glimmering resume as one of Hollywood’s brightest talents is no minor miracle. She’s good even when the material around her is frustratingly uneven at best.
Admittedly, Erica isn’t from the strongest nuclear family. Planning to use the money she socks away from her trysts to free her imprisoned father, her mother (Kathyrin Hahn) seems like a nice person, but treats Erica more like a younger sister than someone who needs guidance or discipline. Plus, as she’s close to moving forward in her relationship with her boyfriend, Bob Sherman (a terrific Tim Heidecker), their union provides more than teenage angst for Erica. Moving in alongside a rental father is his emotionally damaged son Luke (Joey Morgan), freshly released from rehab and barely able to articulate a word to Erica. It probably doesn’t help that she offers her sexual services to him in an effort to win his awkward affection during their first family dinner night.
What follows from there, as Erica slowly prods the reasons for Luke’s stifled inferiority, involves a revenge subplot that goes horribly wrong, followed by a frantic teenage dash for the border when all hope is lost. A coming-of-age story, yes, but with all the pitfalls of a uniquely designed teenage Bonnie and Clyde romance tossed in for good measure.
Written by Winkler, Alex McAuley and Matt Spicer (who directed last year’s viciously good and under appreciated Ingrid Goes West), Flower skirts the edges of bad taste every chance it gets without drowning itself completely in tar-black humor or outlook. As a matter of fact, it strides towards a denouement that’s actually downright ‘fairy tale-ish.’ This balancing act is what keeps Flower refreshing, even if it doesn’t quite fully stick its landing.
Flower does do one thing in exemplary fashion, though. And that’s Deutch. The daughter of 80’s star Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch, I’ve yet to see a performance from her that lets me down. As a beacon of sensitivity adrift a veritable sea of meatheads in Richard Linklater’s moribund Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) and giving Ry Russo Young’s teen deja vu drama Before I Fall much more depth than expected, she gives her all in Flower, ripping through her character of Erica as an outwardly strong individual whose ripples of vulnerability are shed away slowly before our eyes. Like her mom before her, she’s going to captivate a generation of movie-goers for a long time.
All this to say Flower elicits uneven feelings while watching it. In several scenes, Erica frolics in her bedroom beneath a poster on her wall that reads “Advisory Culture.” It’s an apt description of her life. I’m at once scared and sort of hopeful for their generation. As the film suggests, Erica and her friends are incisively adept at getting what they want. They also live, learn and grow to love in unique leaps and bounds. That it takes sexual blackmail and sometimes murder to grasp the roots of their wild connections to each other is another matter altogether. I suppose if nothing else, Flower would make for a fascinating double feature with Ingrid Goes West in which we ask, ‘Are the kids alright?’
Flower opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area at the Dallas Dallas on March 23 and AMC Grapevine Mills 30 and Stonebriar 24 on March 30.