Somewhere within the carefully art-directed, incredibly detail-oriented, wildly filthy FLOWER lies a bud of genius—the film that made its debut at Tribeca last year swings for the fences with its particular blend of pitch-black comedy and has a talented cast of performers that almost pulls it off. Unfortunately it’s wrapped tightly inside a super-contrived revenge A plot and truly unfortunate romance B plot that test the bounds of its audience’s patience and neuter the John Waters Lite–tinted look at life in L.A.’s outer suburbs. It all looks and feels like a holographic Pizza Hut vending machine sticker brought to life and projected onto the big screen.
When we meet the film’s 17-year-old protagonist, Erica Vandross (Zoey Deutch), she and her two best friends (Dylan Gelula and Maya Eshet) are blackmailing a bumbling police officer she’s just administered oral sex on. It’s just another average day for the three foul-mouthed friends, whose other favorite activities include slamming Slurpees, doodling dicks (these are some liberated chicks, man) and hanging around their neighborhood’s dumpy bowling alley gawking over “hot” dads. The reason for Erica’s salacious side hustle? Get this—earning enough bail money to spring her casino-robbing deadbeat dad from jail. (How’s that for feminism?)
But the story really gets going when Erica finally meets her new stepbrother, Luke (Joey Morgan), a schlubby 18-year-old who’s just gotten out of rehab (for Oxy, natch) and is having trouble coping. When Luke spots his former middle school teacher, Will (Adam Scott), who was fired for accusations of pedophilia, Erica zeroes in on a new target for her particular brand of vigilante justice. Luke doesn’t seem particularly thrilled by Erica’s harebrained GHB-fueled revenge plot, but he goes along with it (mostly because she’s the only friend he has), and just as you’d expect, things go terribly, horribly wrong. And then some.
Max Winkler captures the look and feel of life in the suburbs encircling Los Angeles to the T—there’s something especially boring about growing up in the San Fernando Valley (where the film was shot), a fairly safe and sanitized environment that coaxes parents into relaxing their supervisory duties and allowing their children a certain degree of freedom. (A freedom said children take full advantage of, due to the boredom and restlessness suburbia induces—valley girl checking in). Erica’s mother (Kathryn Hahn) in particular takes lax parenting to a new extreme; she clearly loves Erica, but also clearly prioritizes her role as Erica’s friend over any sort of motherly role.
All of the actors involved acquit themselves well, especially Deutch, whose presence lights up every scene she’s in. Her presence and comic timing are reminiscent of a SHE’S THE MAN–era Amanda Bynes, another child star who successfully made the transition into adult comedic roles (for a time at least). She’s especially strong in her scenes with Hahn—the two have such an easy, lived-in rapport that makes the film’s more dramatic scenes between them feel especially believable and affecting. Somehow the shifts in tone fit together pretty effortlessly (and even admirably), at least for the first two thirds of the film…
Watching FLOWER, you’ll probably be reminded of last year’s sublimely underrated and far more cohesive comedy INGRID GOES WEST, and that’s no accident: INGRID writer/director Matt Spicer teamed up with Winkler to (thankfully, mercifully) rework a much filthier and much more depraved—and thus much less financeable/marketable—O.G. draft penned by Alex McAuley. Unlike INGRID, though, which had the guts to commit to its tone and convictions all the way to the end, FLOWER runs out of ideas well before its ending, preventing its vigilante heroes from getting the justice they deserve (as characters anyhow).
Its abruptly florid third act involves a lot of wheel-spinning (both figuratively and literally), as our young Bonnie and Clyde consummate their creepy, deeply inappropriate relationship amid a high-speed police chase through the Southern California desert, which begs the question: Do we need another film where the schlubby Nice Guy® tames and attains the Hot Girl®? The script’s decision to soften and undercut Erica’s character and her overwrought sexuality at the very last moment only underlines the film’s transparently male fantasy of the “cool girl” who’s DTF but actually isn’t a slut and really enjoys missionary (because ew—female sexuality).