It’s incredible what happens when the wildly inaccurate conjectures that adolescent boys have about adolescent girls are allowed to flourish, unchecked, all the way until said adolescent boy is a grown man given the keys to a quirky indie movie. Thoroughbreds was one such fantasia, its teen anti-heroines rendered flat and affectless enough to defy the laws of physics and/or adolescent reality. But Flower, directed by Max Winkler (son of Henry) is in a different league. Zoey Deutch’s Erica is a mind-bogglingly misguided fabrication — a bizarre fun-house reflection of every weird hang-up and fetishization pop culture piles onto the word “teens,” ten Skins characters rolled into one, a concoction of a bored screenwriter.
Your guess is as good as mine as to the title — the script, by Ingrid Goes West director Matt Spicer, goes out of its way to be indelicate. Erica is introduced to us giving a blow job to a local cop in his car, finishing with a blasé demand for $20. It’s the kind of screenplay hook whose forced shock you can totally imagine two grown men high-fiving themselves over at your local coffee shop. The rendezvous ends up being setup: Erica and her friends (played by Maya Eshet and Dylan Gelula of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) have a running scam in which they record her orally servicing all manner of grown men around town, and use the footage to extort money from them. You know, teen stuff. A few hundred here and there, which Erica dutifully stashes away in a fund whose purpose we are not immediately let in on.
Erica lives with her single mom (Kathryn Hahn in a role that feels written — and styled — for Juliette Lewis)‚ her father is absent, having gone to prison for “being awesome in a casino.” But her peaceful idyll is disrupted when her mom moves in with her boyfriend (Tim Heidecker) and his awkward, just-outta-rehab son Luke (Joey Morgan). Erica hates Luke at first — he isn’t the hot heroin addict she’d envisioned, and he’s disgusted by her suggestion of oral sex as a cure for his panic attacks. But then they begin to bond over a shared fixation on a regular at the bowling alley they frequent, played by Adam Scott: Erica has a crush on him, Luke accused him of molestation in middle school. Erica and her friends, along with Luke, scheme to take him down, while Erica and Luke grow closer, and the film’s dual themes — blow jobs, statutory rape — are deployed in about as tasteful a manner as you can imagine.
One thing I do appreciate about Flower is its embrace of its lower-middle-class SoCal setting. The dusty, drought-parched suburb Erica and her friends bum around is thoughtfully depicted — drab and romantic at the same time. The film takes place over the summer, and the film feels as drifty and aimless as summer break. It also feels just as sweaty. That well-observed naturalism is even more of a stark background for these bizarre characters. The two main exceptions are Heidecker and especially Morgan, by far the best performer in the film. Luke is a darker, stranger figure than most miserable misfits are allowed to be onscreen. He feels like a character who continues to live even when he’s not onscreen, unlike Erica, who feels only written for her screen time — and performed with great sense of demonstration by the usually sensitive and smart Deutch.
It recalls Spicer’s last script, in which the “weirdo” love interest ends up being far more personable than the titular, tech-obsessed cartoon of modern womanhood. Flower goes completely off the rails in its final act, but even worse, it brings its one human character off the rails with it, culminating in a moment of mutual vulnerability so unearned it might qualify as embezzlement. But I’ll give Flower props — in an age when so many teen movies are grasping so desperately for message-y topicality, it does the impossible, and manages to be about nothing at all.