Flower feels fraudulent on just about every level.
Flower is a coming-of-age comedy that sets itself up with a unique challenge: It depicts a loss of innocence in someone who isn’t all that innocent to begin with. In the opening scene, 17-year-old Erica (Zoey Deutch) is giving oral sex to a uniformed police officer in his patrol car, which is parked on a hilltop somewhere in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. When he asks her where she learned to give head, she shrugs and wipes the side of her mouth, bluntly replying with “middle school.” Transgressive, to be sure. But as the rest of the scene demonstrates, it’s not exactly salacious: Erica offers herself as jailbait to local predators and scumbags while a couple of friends hide nearby, capturing the encounter on an iPhone before escorting the mark to the nearest ATM to collect some serious hush money. Vigilante justice is served.
But Erica’s wordly ways and cunning street smarts don’t seem to derive from narrative or character invention as much as they stem from a decidedly adolescent male mind. The wild assumptions teenage boys make about teenage girls have a tendency to find their way on screen, usually when said teenage boys become adult indie filmmakers who can’t seem to resolve their feelings toward teenage girls. As a protagonist, Erica is a ludicrously conceived fabrication, an inconsistent mishmash of all the fetishizations and judgemental hang-ups piled upon the “modern teen,” the creation of bored screenwriters stuck in high school. The screenwriters in question are Matt Spicer, who directed the recent indie Ingrid Goes West, and Max Winkler, who serves as director here. Together, they envision Erica as sexually liberated and overflowing with wit and attitude, but she’s lacking the one thing all women apparently need in their lives: a male influence.
Part of that has to do with her absent father, who was sent to jail for “being awesome in a casino,” and the blowjob money Erica doesn’t spend on clothes goes directly toward his bail fund. Her mom (Kathryn Hahn) has a steady boyfriend, the sweet albeit painfully dorky Bob (Tim Heidecker), but in Erica’s mind, he’s an inadequate replacement for dear old dad. Matters are only complicated when mom announces that Bob and his straight-outta-rehab son, Luke (Joey Morgan), are moving in with them. Now she has two potential father fall-ins invading her space, and Spicer and Winkler seem to revel in putting her on the straight and narrow while also striving to maintain her feisty and sexy demeanor, a weird inverse of the Madonna-Whore complex. “I have daddy issues,” Erica flirtily announces at one point, effectively rendering the subtextual as text and further misinterpreting Freud for a whole new generation of indie moviegoers.
Erica takes an immediate dislike to Luke. Rather than the heroin-chic heartthrob she envisioned, he’s an overweight pill-popper suffering from bipolar disorder, and she’s royally confused—even slightly offended—when he vehemently refuses her offer of a blowjob after he suffers a panic attack. (Remember, she’s a “cool girl” who’s, like, totally laid back about sex and stuff.) They quickly bond, however, over their shared interest in Will (Adam Scott), a guy from around town: he’s Erica’s older crush and Luke’s alleged rapist. Seeking vengeance for Luke, the two begin hatching one of Erica’s patented entrapment schemes, but more than a few things get in the way, including her romantic feelings and his shifting storylines. But rather than create any dramatic intrigue, these complications simply muddle the narrative so much that an overall objective becomes difficult to locate. Each scene represents a thematic reset (coming-of-age comedy gives way to deconstructed revenge saga, which pivots toward home invasion thriller before entering road-movie territory), with the only consistency being Erica’s impulsive sexuality, which either gets her in trouble or aids in her pursuits, depending on how the filmmakers feel in the moment.
While Flower feels fraudulent on just about every level, the film’s depiction of lower-middle-class L.A. valley life registers surprisingly as authentic. The dusty, sun-scorched suburb where Erica and her family reside is full of brown, sloping hillsides sucked dry from the drought, but the soft lighting and careful camerawork are affectionate and oddly charming. It’s the perfect backdrop for the family drama to which Winkler and Spicer pay only a modicum of attention. Heidecker and Hahn are perfectly cast as baffled but well-meaning parents, quick to offer parental advice while seemingly still figuring out adulthood themselves. The dynamic they share with their kids is raw and desperate, but not without cathartic doses of fined-tuned humor. The first dinner they share together as a makeshift family is completely awkward (and it only gets more awkward—this is the meal they share right before Erica offers to suck Luke’s dick), but it’s also vulnerable and honest in a way that’s almost too good for the rest of the movie, which ultimately amounts to little more than a conventionally unconventional quirk-fest filled with contradictory moods, empty messages and even emptier ideas.