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Flower

For the past couple of weeks, there’s been a little movie called Love, Simon in theaters. I’ve heard wonderful things about it as a progressive and heartwarming coming-of-age dramedy. I’d love to review it… but that’s not how the timing worked out today.

Instead, here’s Flower, which is also a coming-of-age teen movie and that’s where the similarities end. This is a black comedy exec-produced by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride, cowritten by Matt Spicer of Ingrid Goes West infamy. The director/cowriter is Max Winkler, here making his sophomore effort after a little-known indie debut eight years ago.

I don’t know what this all adds up to, but it’s bound to be fucked up. And it certainly was that, if nothing else.

Our protagonist is the 17-year-old Erica Vandross (Zoey Deutch), introduced giving head to a cop (Dale, played by Eric Edelstein). Erica and her friends (Claudine and Kala, respectively played by Maya Eshet and Dylan Gelula) then proceed to blackmail the cop with cell phone footage of the tryst. Judging from Erica’s overstuffed coin bank, her impressive ledger, and her notebook of detailed sketches of every dick she’s ever sucked off, she’s been running this con for quite a while.

Yes, Erica has a very prominent oral fixation. She’s never had intercourse, but she loves giving head. Put another way, she’s comfortable with sex but she’s not comfortable with intimacy. She’s got a filthy mouth and a blunt sense of humor, which is enough to drive people away from her, but Erica’s not the least bit bothered about that. She clearly doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about her… though we see later on there are one or two people she cares about very deeply, and she doesn’t realize until too late that she can drive away people she loves just as easily as she can piss off total strangers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, the blackmail con is a convenient way for Erica and her friends to make money out of her blowjob fetish, while also bringing justice to perverted men who would prey on underage kids for sexual favors. This brings us to Luke, Erica’s prospective stepbrother, played by Joey Morgan. Luke just got out of rehab for a pill addiction, coupled with a nasty habit of stress-eating. It also doesn’t help that Luke was allegedly molested by a teacher (Will, played by Adam Scott) and the case was thrown out to insufficient and contradictory evidence.

And as luck would have it, Erica and her friends have already met this selfsame ex-teacher in passing, and they’ve been crushing on him for some time now. So they decide to take this opportunity and make Will their next mark.

Getting back to Luke, it’s interesting that he starts out as your typical overweight loser, but then the first impression wears off and we can see that… well, he just got out of rehab. The guy is clearly not his best self and he’s still got a metric ton of issues to work through. There’s a great deal of pathos to this character, and the filmmakers deserve credit for not sugar-coating any of it.

Moreover, the shared arc between Luke and Erica unfolds in a genuinely compelling and credible way, due in no small part to the actors and their interplay. It also helps that the two characters push and challenge each other in fascinating ways. A prime example is when Erica tries to break the ice and console Luke with — what else? — a blowjob. Of course it doesn’t bother her the least bit that they’re about to be step-siblings, since it’s not like they’re related by blood. While Erica is initially repulsed by how he looks all fat and dumpy, he still has a penis and a dick is a dick as far as she’s concerned. And while she’s not put off by Luke refusing, she is at least good enough to take no for an answer. More importantly, their relationship becomes considerably more platonic when Erica finally learns about Luke’s history with sexual abuse.

In addition to furthering Erica’s development as a character, Luke provides an important contrast as the innocent and withdrawn type next to Erica’s flippant lack of restraint or tact. Will is another important sounding board — by all appearances, he’s an ordinary guy going about his life until Erica (a teenage girl, remember) barges in and starts putting the moves on him. Not only is it darkly comical in a taboo sort of way, but there’s also a bit of suspense going on — though we know about Will’s alleged past with abusing children, we don’t really know all that much about him or what he’s capable of. More on that later.

The third important sounding board is Bob, played by Tim Heidecker. Bob is a total square, trying too hard to be Erica’s friend because he’s dating Erica’s mom (Laurie, played by Kathryn Hahn). And Laurie is desperate for the relationship to work because her ex-husband got sent to jail and Laurie needs the support to raise a daughter and get her career on straight. It’s funny enough to see Bob try and make the “potential stepdad” thing work, especially when he has to deal with such an eccentric potential stepdaughter and his own deeply troubled son.

But what’s far more compelling is Erica’s relationship with her mother. The two of them have a very close relationship, such that they’re almost more like sisters when we first meet them. But as Erica’s shit gets further out of control and the chips get thrown down, Laurie has to figure out just how far she and Erica can truly push each other, and whether her relationship with Bob is the real deal. This is prime dramedy material, and Hahn is versatile enough as an actor to be as funny or as heartbreaking as the story demands. Of course it also helps that Deutch meets her pound for pound onscreen.

Then there’s the matter of Erica’s father. See, Erica has been saving up all of her blackmail money so she can bail her dad out of jail. We can see that she loves her dad very deeply, giving her a sweet vulnerability that such an abrasive character badly needed. Trouble is, the movie never sufficiently develops Erica’s dad or their relationship. We don’t know very much about the man or why Erica believes the arrest was unjust, so it’s hard to sympathize or root for Erica chasing after this goal. And last but not least, this whole subplot is given such a piss-poor non-resolution that it ultimately accomplishes nothing.

This, sadly, is emblematic of the movie as a whole. The first and second acts are loaded with intriguing and darkly hilarious setups, but then the third act happens and the filmmakers have no idea where to go. The movie can only tread water for half an hour, ending in a climax that barely deserves the name, before most — but not all — of the dangling story arcs are tied up off-screen in a cute little epilogue.

But then we have the piece de resistance: There’s a point in which it’s implied that maybe Will didn’t really molest Luke. Yes, there’s the distinct possibility that Luke’s story didn’t track because he made the whole thing up, his various mental/emotional issues driving him to make false sexual assault allegations as a cry for attention. Yikes.

To be clear, this is a movie that started out as a revenge fantasy for anyone outraged by pedophilia or personally affected by it… and the filmmakers came within a hair’s breadth of turning that into a story about a false sexual assault allegation. I’ll grant that it made for a fantastic surge of tension, forcing us to question Luke’s reliability and whether this whole blackmail scheme was justified, but that just means it’s plausible that Luke had been lying, and that’s enough to be a slap in the face of actual rape victims who’ve been accused of lying.

To be fair, there are a ton of mitigating factors at play, many of them spoilery enough that I won’t discuss them here. But while the filmmakers never completely cross that line, they come uncomfortably close. Much like with the “attempted suicide” plot point in Ingrid Goes West, I get the distinct feeling that the filmmakers were trying to make a statement about this bold and relevant topic, but didn’t really think through how sensitive it was.

That’s probably the best way to describe Flower: They just didn’t think it through. The movie has a darkly funny premise, compelling characters, a solid cast, some neat statements about sexuality… and no idea what to do with any of them. As soon as the time comes to pay off everything that’s been set up, the movie comes back empty-handed. As a direct result, the character development rings hollow, the jokes don’t land, the thematic statements are half-baked, and the whole movie comes off as wasted time and potential.

There’s a lot about this movie to like, but not enough to recommend.

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