Erica’s the kind of teenage girl who whiles away her time housing nachos at bowling alleys, writing in her diary and fellating older men in order to extort them for money (natch). Flower opens with the euphoric grunts of a policeman in the throes of an orgasm. “Where did you learn that?” he breathes, when all the awkward lead-up is done. “Middle school,” Erica replies, as her two friends emerge from the bushes, camera phone in hand, ready to take him for all the cash he’s worth – which, incidentally, turns out to be just $400.
It’s a gutsy start to any coming of age film, and also a kind of litmus test. If you can’t get through these first five minutes, you’re not gonna want to stick around for the rest of the moral muck in store. Erica takes the cash and stores it away for safekeeping – adding it to a fund devoted to bailing her “awesome” father out of jail, but Flower doesn’t start in earnest until her carefree mother Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) invites her boyfriend Sherm (Tim Heidecker) and his troubled son to move into their home in a nondescript sun-washed Los Angeles suburb.
Initially cruel to her post-rehab stepbrother (Joey Morgan) when she finds out that he’s not “Kurt Cobain thin” but rather dealing with an addiction to food along with OxyContin, Erica softens after witnessing a particularly pitiful suicide attempt and learning of his tragic childhood. From there, Flower takes the coming of age format to its most gleefully dark conclusions, bringing the audience along for the ride as each of Erica’s poorly made decisions transform the film from fluffy family dysfunction to something far more sinister.
Director Max Winkler flirts with greatness for the first half of Flower, as Erica attempts to navigate the world with glittering performative maturity and a wicked sense of humor, and the second-time filmmaker does a pretty fantastic job of telegraphing the emotional unpreparedness that lurks just beyond her confident eyes early on. To the film’s credit, Erica is, for all her movie-constructed peccadillos (she loves rats, slurpees, and drawing dicks) incredibly magnetic, even as Flower dips into chaos.
Much of this – or perhaps all – is due to the Zoey Deutch’s electric lead performance, which sees the young actress finally in a meaty leading role. The young actress embodies the teen with world-weary badassery and more than a little pain, and does nearly all of the work in selling the film’s emotionally wobbly final half. It’s worth noting here that Kathryn Hahn is also fabulous as ever, sporting tender chemistry with Deutch, and Adam Scott does incredibly compelling and morally murky supporting work that allows the actor to cash in on his likable persona in deliciously subversive ways.
In the end, Flower buckles underneath its attempt at balancing its plethora of tones, ultimately abandoning the emotional journey of its central character in favor of a tidier ending. It becomes clear even before the credits roll on the film that Erica’s quirk-stuffed character was penned by a male screenwriter (three male screenwriters in fact), with the film dropping the anchoring thread of her emotional journey whenever it best suits the narrative. Some dark-minded viewers may be willing to roll with Flower’s many tonal shifts, but despite a powerhouse performance and some sharp-tongued writing, it’s ultimately a film too cruel and too emotionally flimsy to manage any sort of staying power.
Flower doesn’t currently have a release date. It debuted this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.