Certain films redefine their stars—regardless of those films’ quality. I’m talking about stars like Jonah Hill in Moneyball, Anne Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin. These are movies that opened up whole avenues for these actors, jettisoning them into new and exciting career phases. For Zoey Deutch, Flower is her oddball, hit-and-miss Juno.
Deutch has gained some notice as the love interests in the punctuated comedies Everybody Wants Some!! and Why Him?, as well as leading Before I Fall, but Flower allows her to flex. A spazzy, acerbic high school jerk who uses her endearing charms to seduce, blow and blackmail older men, Erica is played by Deutch as angry, defiant, sweet and secretive. Dead eyes in a youthful face spark with malice or joy depending on her company. The company, like the movie itself, varies wildly in quality. Her mom (Kathryn Hahn) has recently invited her boyfriend (Tim Heidecker) to move in with them, along with his son Luke (Joey Morgan), who’s recently been released from rehab.
Erica hates the idea, partially because teenagers hate change and partially because she still holds out hope that her criminal father will return once he’s released from jail. Her friends (Dylan Gelula and Maya Eshet), who assist her in her blackmailing blowjob scheme, are mainly concerned with whether her new step-brother-to-be is as hot as they think. He is not. They discuss him at their local bowling alley, where they ogle Hot Older Dude (Adam Scott) and plan their next schemes. These characters all become connected in an increasingly sinister and ludicrous plot until finally rupturing in a climax far darker than anything Juno could’ve ever cooked up.
Still, Flower a bouncy movie even through that point—sometimes overwhelmingly so. Jokes, slurs and sexuality flow from its stars as they rebut any detractors with Carol Queen-style sex-positive feminism as advanced and nuanced as you might expect from well-read teenagers living in the internet age. Director Max Winkler portrays such an in-between time for teens believably, especially in the film’s visual gags, like the prop comedy decorating Erica’s bedroom with the kind of overly-sexual jokes of an overcompensating girl, i.e., a diary full of penis sketches that looks like a pornographic biology textbook. This sort of provocative charm slowly but surely transitions to a far more obvious and lazy explanation for the characters: Erica simply has daddy issues, looking for any and all older male affection to bolster her self-worth.
This philosophical backslide feels twice as treacherous when the film’s premise seems this refreshing and the actors this good. The relationship between Hahn and Deutch is uniquely capitalistic, developed sparingly with body language and pet names, and complete in its desperation. You can tell their backstory just from their interactions. The aforementioned visual comedy hits harder than Flower’s spoken punchlines, its primary colors slowly fading out into darker hues while the music grows dreary—all directorial boons—but the script, by Winkler with Alex McAulay and Matt Spicer, undermines them all, unable to work with the same subtlety.
A truly upsetting ending completes the film’s transformation from oddball criminal comedy to indie romance in a way that’s perhaps not narratively clichéd, but one still fit to watch all of the film’s character-building to their most boring conclusions. There are two movies here, and the actors handle that duality well. But the brooding darkness lurking inside these characters needs a drama of its own.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter..