A charming and blissful look at the joys and pains of a bravado-flecked reckless youth, director Max Winkler’s “Flower” is an earnest coming-of-age pic mixing cheeky sass with full-bodied teenage angst and beaming vitality. And it’s also an untamed dark comedy that veers off to unexpected places that reveal disturbing edges.
If there’s a movie that can pull off the cool insouciance of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Clueless” and Diablo Cody, and successfully mix it with the seemingly incongruous realist sensibilities of “Fish Tank” or the films of Andrea Arnold in general, “Flower” is it. Unpredictable and audacious, “Flower” is nearly three films in one, an irreverent John Hughes teen comedy, a darker cautionary tale and a crazy road trip movie ripped out of the pages of Hal Ashby’s “Harold And Maude.” And despite its precarious tightrope walk of three acts with three shifting tones, the shambolic, but winsome film pulls it off. “Flower” is hilarious one moment, tender the next and takes some surprising turns. And it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a dynamic lead who steadily navigates the twists with an emotional authenticity that keeps the movie on its bumpy track.
Rogue-ish teen comedies with saucy protagonists live and die by the ability of their stars to carry the entire film on their shoulders. Luckily, “Flower” is gifted with the charismatic, uber-magnetic personality of Zoey Deutch, a terrific force of nature who shines throughout the film as the alienated and rebellious lead Erica. Still reeling from the abandonment of her father now locked up in jail, Erica’s complicated agitation and wild behavior is deeply rooted in his absence. Deutch’s dimensional performance features several layers, a cocksure veneer and a vulnerable, sensitive inside that peers out at anxious, but also unexpected moments. On the rise as it is, “Flower” cements Deutch’s status as a star in the making.
The drama/comedy/thriller opens-up, provocatively, with a blowjob. “Smile, you’re on candid camera, motherfucker,” free-spirited, flippant seventeen-year-old Erica hisses as her friends bum rush a police officer she’s blown capturing it all on iPhone tape. This brazen extortion is the brassy girls’ “Risky Business”-ish modus operandi — a shameless and careless means to an end to score cash. Suck, swallow, brush teeth and move on, none of it seems to phase Erica as she and her friends are off clocking the next foolish target to seduce.
However, things aren’t so great at home and are about to get worse. Erica’s free and easy mom (a wonderful Kathryn Hahn) is more best friend than boundary-enforcing parental figure and her boyfriend, Bob (Tim Heidecker) is a humorless dweeb Erica loathes. This toxic dynamic that Erica already rebels against becomes further complicated with the introduction of Luke (Joey Morgan from “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”), Bob’s overweight, anxious son who’s just coming home from rehab and moves in, further crowding Erica.
As Erica and her sort of step-brother come to a détente they eventually form an unconventional perhaps even inappropriate kinship. Their push and pull leads to a new plot; blackmailing a former teacher (Adam Scott), who happens to be the “hot older guy” Erica is obsessed with, further complicating things. When this scheme goes awry, “Flower” begins to sunset in tone, nearly transforming into a different, much darker movie.
Reinforcing the charm offensive is Dylan Gelula (“First Girl I Loved”) and Maya Eshet (“Love”), both of whom play Erica’s trickster best friends and smoothly pull off the role of bff comedic relief.
Winkler’s sophomore effort has many impressive strengths beyond tricky tone management, snappy dialogue and crisp performances, but what “Flower” excels at is capturing that effervescent, extremely emotional volatility of adolescence which acts as the guiding principal of the narrative. When situations become dangerously real in the second act, “Flower” never shies away from the chaos and fear that ensues and the emotionality of overwhelmed, freaking out teens. When “Flower” begins to truly bloom when it charges forward with the idea of guileless teens on the run, in over their heads and making it all up as they go along.
Narratively, “Flower” has an outer layer plot and an inner layer story. The plot surrounds the seduction and blackmail of the teacher and while this contains many of the impulsive surprises and twists and turns, it’s the quieter inner story of Erica’s family, her sorrow and the pain she’s masking that are really the heart and soul of the movie. Together they form a rich blend of plot with forward momentum and intimate character study while told on the go.
Featuring a vibrant soundtrack (Angel Olsen, Jamie xx, I Monster) and score by Joseph Stephens (“Eastbound and Down“) the pulsing, daydreamy electro pop of “Flower” further fuels its romantic, lively, floating-on-air feeling. Perhaps most eye-catching is the film’s loose, raw, hand-held filmmaking. Imbuing the film with vivacious energy and yet never too flashy, this verve nearly matches Deutch’s own off-the-charts swagger. Further impressive is the 180 it marks for its director. Winkler’s last film, the underrated “Ceremony,” was Wes Anderson-and Paul Thomas Anderson-influenced with sharp whip pans, long tracking shots and hyper-controlled and designed camera movement. Winkler demonstrates his versatility by crafting a freeform and wild movie that could easily be mistaken for the work of a completely different filmmaker.
If there’s issues with “Flower” they come with that madcap transition of feisty teen comedy to something more somber and shadowy. Results will vary on the increasing unruliness (I dug it personally) and the ending perhaps wraps itself up too quickly and neatly too. Still, the endearing movie has lots to love.
Led with feminine sensibilities (and sensitivities), perhaps the ultimate compliment one could give to “Flower” is that you’d never know this wasn’t a film written and directed by women.
“Flower” is feminist in its unapologetic look at Erica’s agency, sexual or otherwise, but is empathetic in understanding her various, sometimes contradictory, complexities. This is a teen who knows everything and yet nothing and “Flower” embraces that duality with sympathy, but an edge that isn’t looking for excuses either. Impulsive and fickle like a teenage girl (or just any teenager), “Flower” dips around, goes for broke and is never afraid to land a little messy or rough around the edges. The movie’s also uncompromising in its vision to double down on the mania of the crazy situations even if it potentially breaks suspension of disbelief. Ultimately, for all its sharp quips and hairpin turns, the dramedy’s greatest achievement is the creation and execution of Erica, a remarkable girl unafraid to appear weird, foolish and wild at heart. [B+]