Hitting the air a mere four months after Lifetime scored a ratings bull’s-eye with guilty pleasure literary adaptation “Flowers in the Attic,” sequel “Petals on the Wind” certainly looks and feels like a rush job, but nevertheless improves on its predecessor in nearly every way. Where “Flowers” was airless and po-faced, “Petals” is manic and sudsy, speeding through a treasure trove of sleazy plot twists like CliffsNotes on crack. No one’s going to mistake this for high art, but as enjoyably trashy TV goes, “Petals” is more artful than it needs to be. With less name recognition than “Flowers,” Lifetime could see a dip in the ratings for the Memorial Day premiere, but plans to continue the franchise with two more adaptations should march forward unabashedly.
Picking up 10 years after the surviving Dollanganger children — Cathy (Rose McIver), Christopher (Wyatt Nash) and Carrie (Bailey Buntain) — escaped the attic where they were imprisoned by fundamentalist grandmother Olivia (Ellen Burstyn) and murderous mother Corinne (Heather Graham), “Petals” opens at the funeral of the kids’ foster father (a significant character in V.C. Andrews’ novel, dropped here in one of several prudent alterations).
From there the siblings are scattered like, well, petals: Self-possessed Cathy heads to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a prima ballerina and falls for tempestuous colleague Julien (Will Kemp), her brother-lover Christopher studies medicine and attracts the attention of sweet Southerner Sarah (Whitney Hoy), and social outcast Carrie struggles to overcome her shyness at an all-girls school before meeting lovesick minister Alex (Ross Philips).
Domestic violence, pregnancy, bullying, marriage proposals, a miscarriage, home renovation, a fatal car crash and suicide by baked goods follow — not necessarily in that order — as returning screenwriter Kayla Alpert condenses some 450 pages of melodramatic craziness into roughly 90 minutes of screen time (sans commercials). But the franchise’s real calling card is the forbidden romance between Cathy and Christopher, which began in the attic and blossoms here into a full-blown tortured love story.
By alternating significant time between Cathy, Christopher, Carrie and Corinne, the ADD storytelling in “Petals” ensures there’s never a dull moment — or a sensible one either — and the events retained from Andrews’ novel are just bonkers enough to make the approach pay off.
It also helps that McIver, soon to be seen starring in the CW’s new series “iZombie,” emerges as a captivating and surprisingly shrewd leading lady. This is plot- and not character-driven material, making it near impossible to get a handle on what kind of person Cathy is. But McIver manages to bring welcome nuance to a role that easily could’ve become a standard one-note soap opera heroine.
Talented co-star Buntain, of the late and much lamented ABC Family dramedy “Bunheads,” uses her diminutive frame to great advantage, emphasizing the disconnect she feels from her older, randier siblings. Returning cast MVP Burstyn makes the most of the little she’s given, delivering withering put-downs and self-pitying asides like a boss, despite her character’s terminally ill physical appearance.
While the men don’t fare as well, Kemp at least compensates for the amount of scenery he chews as a raging alcoholic thanks to his considerable prowess in the ballet sequences (while McIver’s dancing is all too obviously performed by a double). There’s so much ballet in the first half that viewers may think they’re watching Lifetime’s answer to “Black Swan,” but “Petals” segues into a more conventional revenge story once Cathy turns her attention to Corinne’s trophy husband Bart (“Orphan Black” co-star Dylan Bruce, reprising his meager “Flowers” role with only slightly more importance but much more bare skin).
Director Karen Moncrieff, who has ace indies “Blue Car” and “The Dead Girl” on her resume, is essentially slumming it here, but imbues the film with more visual texture and atmosphere than expected from a quickie TV movie. Her guiding hand extends to sharp contributions from d.p. Anastas Michos and some choice ’70s wardrobe pieces from costume designer Mona May.
Whether or not this creative upswing continues with planned threequel “If There Be Thorns,” “Petals” proves it was a good move to get the Dollangangers out of the attic and into the wild.