Director: Max Winkler
Cast: Zoey Deutch, Joey Morgan, Kathryn Hahn, Tim Heidecker, Adam Scott, Dylan Gelula, Maya Eshet, Eric Edelstein
MPAA Rating: (for crude sexual content and language throughout, graphic nude drawings, some drug content, and a brief violent image)
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 3/16/18 (limited); 3/23/18 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 22, 2018
The protagonist of Flower takes some warming up to, and even then, we're never entirely on her side. She is, as they say, damaged goods: a teenager who comes from a broken home, whose mother treats her more as a friend than a child, who idolizes her jailed father, who seems to have a misanthropic outlook on humanity, and who performs sexual favors for older men for the sole purpose of blackmailing them for money. In her mind, the blackmail is a form of twisted justice. She's willing and happy to do those things, and in doing so and having her friends record the acts on their cellphones, there's a better chance that these men will think twice before they attempt to solicit an underage girl again. As a bonus, she gets some quick cash in the process.
In order to understand the 17-year-old Erica (Zoey Deutch), one has to understand this logic. So much of comprehending this thought process and our capacity to sympathize with the character depend on the performance. Deutch, who quickly has become one of the more charismatic and engaging of the actresses of her generation, does a lot of the work simply by allowing her charming side to be on display.
Throughout the character's transformation from a hell-raiser with a purpose to someone who realizes that her own life is worth more than her circumstances, the actress shows us some of what's behind Erica's rationale for the way she thinks and behaves. She's rebelling, but that rebellion is less about the injustice of seeing sexual predators roaming free without any consequences. It's more about the unfair circumstances of her life, which put her in such a position to be seen as a target for these men.
We might have liked the character a bit more if the screenplay by Alex McAulay, Matt Spicer, and director Max Winkler saw Erica as more than simply a reactive victim of her situation. Despite Deutch's performance, which attempts to and often succeeds at showing us the softer layer just beneath the character's tough exterior, Erica is essentially a superficial character, in that there's not too much beneath her angry, sarcastic showiness. We see an intentional flash here or there, mainly when the topic of her father is raised (She's raising money to pay his bail). There's only so much of Erica's brashness, resentment, and striking out at people that we can take, though, before we start to believe that what we see about the character is all that there is to her.
The story gives Erica a foil in Luke (Joey Morgan), the son of her mother Laurie's (Kathryn Hahn) now-serious boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker), whom Erica treats with barely hidden hostility. Luke has been released from a rehabilitation facility for a prescription opioid addiction, and Laurie wants her daughter to bond with the teen who's likely to become Erica's stepbrother. Following Luke having a panic attack in a restaurant, Erica tries to bond by offering to comfort him with one of those sexual favors with which she blackmails those older men. He is, understandably, horrified by the offer. She, a ball of barely contained insecurity, assumes he's gay and says as much.
Their relationship turns into something relatively stable when Luke sees Will (Adam Scott) at a local bowling alley. By Luke's account, Will is the reason for his breakdown. He was a teacher at Luke's school, and Luke tells Erica that the man used his position of power to molest him. Seeing an opportunity for vigilante justice and some more cash, Erica decides to seduce Will and take him down.
Obviously, this is tricky and regularly troubling material, especially since Erica is attracted to Will, since Will seems like a decent guy who rejects Erica's advances, and since Luke's story of abuse was called into question at the time and seems increasingly inconsistent as the plot unfolds. The movie approaches all of these elements with a decidedly mixed moral outlook, not only because of the uncertainty behind Luke's claims, but also because Erica, whose plans become more dangerous and illegal as things progress, hasn't quite garnered enough sympathy by the time her scheming begins.
It might not seem possible, but the movie becomes stranger once Erica's plot falls apart. It turns into a simultaneously darker story about outlaws on the run and a far more romanticized one about the bond between the future stepsiblings. The screenplay kind of sidesteps Will's guilt or innocence in a direct way, almost as if the entire plot was inconsequential to the story's ultimate goal. Freed of the landmine-laden terrain of that story element, the movie finally allows Erica to grow beyond her shell, to confront what caused her to form it in the first place, and, possibly, to shift her way of looking at herself and her life.
This turn is surprisingly effective, considering the events that lead to it. It's contrived and a little troubling, of course, but at least we've grown accustomed to the movie's troublesome approach by then. It's far from enough to convince us that Erica has earned such a momentous and sudden about-face, and that prevents Flower from succeeding as an unconventional study of an unconventional character.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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