By Elias Savada.
I didn’t like Max Winkler’s first feature, the dreary comedy Ceremony (2011), a quirky tic of a wedding crasher film. My impression of his directorial abilities hasn’t changed much in Flower, a jaded Valley Girl vigilante drama that screams “watch my petals wilt” as shell-shocked patrons wander out of art houses trying to make sense of the 90 minutes they’ve just wasted.
Winkler (son of Henry, now getting good reviews in HBO’s new hit man comedy series Barry) is about the same age his dad was when “The Fonz” became a cultural icon. His father knew when to cut his losses – as a film director – after two less than stellar efforts (1988’s Memories of Me and Cop & a Half five years later). Henry’s talents lie in front of the camera or occasionally executive producing a tv series. Max has spent a decade in television, mostly directing episodes of various comedy series (New Girl, Arrested Development, Brooklyn Nine-Nine). It’s time someone told him to just stick with the small screen stuff and follow in his dad’s footsteps with some one-two-and-done action following the reaction Flower should be receiving from critics and viewers alike.
Incontrollable Erica Vandross is a 17-year-old Lolita-esque rebel with a cause – to blackmail enough men seeking sexual gratification that she can free her father on bail for a crime he committed. She’s got a system that has nearly put enough cash in her pocket to get dad out of the slammer, but there’s a wrench gumming up the works. That’s Luke, the unbalanced shy son of Bob, the straight-arrow boyfriend of Erica’s single mom Laurie. When Luke tells Erica that he recognizes a sexual predator (Adam Scott) who preyed upon him as a student, a plot, assisted by her partners in crime, Kala (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet), to extort him goes awry and soon they find themselves on the lam. But not before she gets all the loot she’s saved up and takes along her pet rat.
The adults, not to be looked on as role models, are broadly played by Kathryn Hahn and Tim Heidecker. The slovenly boy, played by Joey Morgan, gets pulled out of his shell by Erica (quite nonchalantly offering him a blow job) and morphs into a play-along foil and ultimately romantic for her. She’s feistily portrayed by Zoey Deutch, who played the daughter of Bryan Cranston and the love interest of James Franco in the 2016 comedy Why Him?
Deutch is a charming actor who, with the right project, could develop into a star well beyond her Disney Channel origins. While it’s great she’s got a crazy character to play with in Flower, it’s also an insufferable one heaped on her by the male-centric writing (Winkler rewrote, with Ingrid Goes West‘s Matt Spicer, an unproduced Black List script by Alex McAulay). The film is a crass, infuriating example of a dark comedy that boomerangs a young, rudderless girl on the edge of the juvenile delinquent system about the San Fernando Valley, looking for her next sad sack victim. It’s Diablo Cody gone dreadfully bad. Off a cliff, down a ravine, into a swirling explosion kind of bad.
Rated R, for crude sexual content and language throughout, graphic nude drawings (Erica has quite an artistic talent for capturing the phalluses of her “subjects”), some drug content (the least of the film’s problems), and a brief violent image, Flower conjures up the worst in independent cinema. In this #MeToo era, it is especially insensitive to young women trying to focus on a protagonist they might want to call a friend. Here’s a movie that might have worked with a female director and writer. Instead, it’s a sad excuse for something contrived to creep you out.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2018 by Centipede Press).