Good comedy should hurt a little. It should make you anxious or sad, or at least a little uncomfortable. What it should not be is safe, and while toothless comedy will undoubtedly offend the fewest people, it never makes much of a mark. Flower is a comedy with teeth. It’s the antidote to all the paint-by-numbers coming of age comedies with titles you’ve already forgotten. Forgettable is the one critique I don’t imagine many will level against this film. Flower’s teeth might not be all neat in a row, but they are sharp, and director Max Winkler (Ceremony) isn’t afraid to bite down.
If you’re wondering if Flower will be your particular bag, it won’t take you long to find out. The film opens on Erica, played by a fearless Zoey Deutch (Why Him?) giving a police officer a blowjob in his cruiser. ‘Where’d you learn to do that?’ he asks. ‘Middle school,’ she replies, before asking for payment. And when he’s not eager to pay up, her two friends Kala (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet) emerge from the bushes, having filmed the whole event. The 17 year-old Erica and her friends run this gambit – lure men into receiving underage oral sex then blackmail them. But while Kala and Claudine eagerly spend their cash, Erica holds onto hers – saving up to bail her father out of jail. These are the murky moral waters in which Flower swims, and they only get darker from there.
Erica’s life becomes more complicated when her mother (Katherine Hahn, We’re the Millers) announces that her profoundly uncool boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker) is moving in with them, and worse, he’s bringing his son, Luke (Joey Morgan, Scout’s Guide to the Apocalypse) fresh out of rehab. Luke picked up an opioid addiction after accusing a teacher at his school of sexual assault. Because of inconsistencies in Luke’s testimony, the teacher went free, and in a twist of fate, bowls at the same alley where Erica hangs out. The man known to Erica and her friends only as Sexy Old Guy, is Will (Adam Scott, Parks and Recreation) – Luke’s accused sexual abuser. So Erica hatches a plan to pull of her biggest scheme yet, with Will as the mark, and well… things don’t exactly go as planned.
A story like Flower is difficult to get right; requiring Winkler and his cast to strike a delicate balance between comedy and drama. The screenplay cowritten by Winkler, Alex McAulay, and Matt Spicer (Ingrid Goes West) calls for a tonal dexterity that the film is nearly limber to achieve. Much of the film’s success must be credited to Zoey Deutch’s captivating performance as Erica, creating the prototypical protagonist of a 21st century bildungsroman, one whose false sense of wisdom must be deconstructed before she can lose the innocence she thought she unburdened herself of years ago. Deutch is able to oscillate between comedic and dramatic beats with ease, holding the film to the ground and prohibiting it from devolving into farcical nonsense. Joey Morgan must also be commended on his performance as Luke, striking a quiet intensity that is an apt match for Deutch’s more vibrant brand of insanity.
Director Max Winkler folds the film up into a relatively tidy package – almost too tidy. The film dulls down some of its sharper edges in exchange for a more palatable conclusion that’s not quite as subversive as the rest of the film leading up to it, but its hard to argue with the decision to end the film on a decided up note. It doesn’t feel like Winkler’s decided to pull his punches, rather than he’s decided to stop hitting. The result is a film that is both intensely heavy and airy simultaneously. As is it’s leading lady, it’s hard to label Flower one thing. It moves too fast in too many directions. The fact that it largely nails these maneuvers makes it something of a triumph.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Films like Flower prove that great filmmaking is about more than telling a great story. It’s a film that shouldn’t work as well as it does, and in the hands of lesser talents it would have either been defanged or offensively unappealing. Winkler wrapped his hand around a firecracker and hasn’t blinked – proving himself a steady talent that we will hopefully see more from. Zoey Deutch carries the success of the film on her back and has proved herself the stuff stars are made of. Flower is a gleefully twisted little film with the power to genuinely surprise and enough bite to ensure you won’t soon forget it.
Flower is having its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.