There is something to be said about the unexpected. On its surface, Max Winkler’s Flower, which just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is another coming of age indie with an irreverent streak from its first-time director. And it really is that. Yet it’s likewise comprised of enough ambitious derring-do to be shocking in its flippancy, especially in regards to the bold and potentially star-making turn by Zoey Deutch. Here is a movie with all the usual archetypes that still somehow keeps audiences off-balance via more mood swings than an inebriate two minutes after last call. As such, it is pretty hard to argue with the movie’s careening internal logic.
Despite an aureate title, there is little wilting about Flower, much less in its enterprising heroine. When the movie begins, Deutch’s Erica is giving fellatio to a local cop in his parked car. After he glowingly asks where she learned to be so good, she nonchalantly deadpans, “Middle school.” There is nothing personal or revolting about this to Erica—it’s a business transaction, but one the bumbling statutory rapist realizes only too late. Since Erica is 17, and her friends (Dylan Gelula and Maya Eshet) are secretly taping the incident on their phones from outside the car, he has been recruited into Erica’s network of blackmailed benefactors, paying her hundreds of dollars a month so the video doesn’t come out.
It might be unpleasant work, but it’s nothing a trip to her bathroom and toothbrush can’t fix.
This is a defiantly provocative opening, and one that Winkler’s film mostly manages to meet in a story as glib as early Diablo Cody and as ultimately gonzo as executive producers Danny McBride and Jody Hill’s most sensationalist cult darlings. Obviously challenging us to wonder why Erica is this ambivalent, the movie reveals an equal amount of disinterest in the answer. There’s a subplot about her father being in prison and never responding to her correspondence, as well as the fact that her mother (a sublime Kathryn Hahn) is focused more on being the laid back ex-hippie cool parent than one who is actually engaged in her daughter’s life.
But really that is just background noise for the actual conflict, which begins when her soon-to-be stepdad Bob (Tim Heidecker) brings his recovering drug addict son, Luke (Joey Morgan), into Erica’s house.
It’s bad enough that Bob’s a square, but his overweight and incredibly low self-esteemed son is simply crowding Erica’s vibes. She tries to pull Luke out of his shell but only becomes really engaged when he reveals that he may have been molested by a pervert down the street (Adam Scott)—the same local denizen Erica has long considered “Hot Old Guy.” Neither she nor the audience is entirely sure whether to believe Luke’s story, but at least it makes the husky lad intriguing, and gives Erica a new adventure and target that might be the biggest payday yet.
As surmised from its basic set-up, Flower shifts wildly in tone and even genres as it gallops toward a lawless third act that will either make or break the movie for plenty of audiences. Either way, its screenplaly by Alex McAulay, Matt Spicer, and Winkler does this with a determined smirk that is inviting in its smugness. As a storyteller, Winkler has cut his teeth on television shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and New Girl, but on his first movie he goes for something a little meaner and a lot blunter than anything seen on a network. And despite an ending that overreaches in its absurdity, his ability to constantly keep the atmosphere dizzying allows the movie to constantly find its laugh, even if it’s sometimes at the viewer’s expense when we inevitably fall down from the narrative whiplash.
The effect is also tremendously aided by Deutch, who left a memorable impression in last year’s Everybody Wants Some!! but with Erica finally finds a character she can revel in and showcase a performing dexterity. As a young woman who constantly makes morally questionable decisions throughout the movie, Erica presents a virtual minefield for any young actress. Even when the heroine claims everything she does is due to some interpretation of modern feminism, it obviously rings hollow, particularly to her. She is on an ethical slippery slope that goes to some very dark places before the story is over, but Deutch maintains an always spritely and charismatic disposition.
More importantly, she makes this frequently frivolous persona authentic and rooted in a confounding humanity, even as the picture goes full-on R-rated Looney Tunes by its finale.
Deutch’s grounding helps elevate the movie from its last act woes that threaten to trip up the narrative’s good time charms. It also allows the movie to primarily succeed as a wacky and perverse adventure that knowingly lets our expectations for coming-of-age traumas burn. And in that fire, it is almost impossible not to smile along at the warmth it generates.
Flower is playing now at the Tribeca Film Festival.