Eastbound & Down scribe and YA novelist Alex McAulay's original screenplay for Flower became something of a cult object before it was even produced. American indie coming-of-age dramas don't tend to center on gangs of teenage girls who seduce older men with blowjobs in order to blackmail them with the video evidence. Nor do such films often play child sexual abuse for laughs.
The heavily reworked finished product tries to preserve the script's transgressive charge without taking its disturbing themes seriously enough to challenge the audience. The queasy result is a sexploitation premise shoehorned into a cutesy romantic fable about growing up. Still, competent direction by Max Winkler (Ceremony), a revised script by Winkler and Matt Spicer (Ingrid Goes West), and a charismatic lead performance by Zoey Deutch combine to make the obscene somewhat palatable.
Seventeen-year-old Erica Vandross (Deutch) patrols her California suburb with a couple of amoral friends (Dylan Galula and Maya Eshet), coercing men out of their money to pay her deadbeat dad's bail. Their first target is a cop. Caught zipping up his pants like a deer in headlights by the girls' iPhone camera, he yells, "This is entrapment!" Their reply: "We're not taking you to court, we're just taking your money!"
This opening scene's sitcom-ready comic timing and bright, Instagrammed look nullifies any revulsion we might have felt, setting the tone for the rest of the film. But is that really a good thing? Other recent dark comedies about delinquent teens, such as The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, and American Honey, at least tried to put their characters' actions in the context of larger social forces.
But in Flower, working-class family dysfunction is supposed to explain everything. Poisoned by unresolved daddy issues, Erica's troubled relationship with her mom (Kathryn Hahn) comes to a head when her nice-guy boyfriend (Tim Heidecker, playing against type for no clear reason) moves in with his teen son, Luke (Joey Morgan), an overweight recovering opioid addict with crippling shyness.
As the quirk factor mounts, so do the plot contrivances. Luke's drug habit stems from a traumatic molestation episode that inspires Erica and crew to stalk the alleged pervert in the name of justice, whether Luke wants them to or not (he doesn't). The target is his former middle school teacher, Will (Adam Scott), aka "Hot Older Guy," whom they just happen to recognize from the bowling alley.
The film plays with the ambiguities of Luke's attraction to Erica, her attraction to Will, and the questionable details of Luke's accusation in a way that's compelling enough but resolves in an unsatisfyingly glib affirmation of Erica and Luke's fundamental goodness.
Flower's promotional interviews play up its "feminist" bona fides, with Winkler explaining how he relied on his female cast and production team members to "get it right" and "eliminate the male gaze as much as I could."
It's true that neither the camera nor the script is as objectifying as might be expected. But politically correct disclaimers are no substitute for courage, and it doesn't take long for the film's sunny insouciance to feel a little sociopathic.