As icky a comedy as you’re likely to see this year, “Flower” comes from an angry place — one that is clearly more concerned about sounding provocative and clever than having anything meaningful to say.
Seventeen-year-old Erica Vandross (Zoey Deutch) has serious trust issues. She feels abandoned by her dad, who’s serving time for a casino scam, and every other man she knows may as well be a pedophile. Erica loves Slurpees, Buffalo wings, and giving fellatio to strangers, including Luke (Joey Morgan), the schlubby son of her mom’s new boyfriend. Just because their parents are dating doesn’t make it incest, she points out.
“Flower” began as a high-attitude spec script by Alex McAulay, whose in-your-face attempt at out-Diablo-Codying Diablo Cody earned him a spot on The Black List in 2012. Mission accomplished, I guess, although no one was about to make “Flower” as he’d written it. Enter Max Winkler (son of the Fonz and director of half a dozen hit shows, including “New Girl” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”) and writing partner Matt Spicer (the wit behind last year’s wicked satire “Ingrid Goes West”), who took the script and overhauled the story, trying to find a plot that might allow such an outrageous character to shine.
What they ended up with was a deeply troubling glimpse at what can happen to a generation conditioned to snark, desensitized to porn, and given free rein by laissez-faire parents. As Erica’s overwhelmed guardian, Kathryn Hahn treats her daughter like an old college buddy and acts as if she’s trying to win some World’s Coolest Mom contest. It’s exciting to see such an unconventional mother-daughter dynamic on-screen, and Deutch and Hahn’s scenes together are terrific (it’s perhaps the only time when the film’s forced attempts at insouciance actually ring true), though that doesn’t make it any less upsetting to realize just how messed up Erica seems to be.
Case in point: The movie opens on a parked police cruiser whose driver is clearly up to no good. A moment later, Erica’s head lifts up from his lap as two of her BFFs (Dylan Gelula and Maya Eshet) appear with their camera phones, recording the scene in order to blackmail the cop (Eric Edelstein) — a scam they’ve been practicing with dozens of other pervs, according to the notebook where Erica keeps track of her conquests. “A d— is just like a thumb without a fingernail, if you think about it,” she says, insisting that nobody gives teenage guys a hard time if they show a comparable enthusiasm for oral sex.
A former child actress (with early Disney Channel credits to her name) who still projects an upbeat Anna Kendrick-esque energy, Deutch makes a bold casting choice for such a scandalous role, considering how calcified most teen-centric films are in reinforcing the notion that teenagers’ identities are defined by the way they look (see last year’s “Before I Fall,” in which she also appeared). Like Ellen Page in “Juno” — or better yet, in the edgy, pedo-entrapment thriller “Hard Candy” — this performance is a brave one by a talented up-and-comer. And yet, Deutch deserves better than such a reductive character. (Whether chosen ironically or not, her decision to wear a T-shirt that says “Daddy” while trying to pick up Adam Scott’s “hot old guy” merely reinforces the cliché that unresolved daddy issues explain why she acts out.)
If we’re lucky, “Flower” represents the dying gasp of a wave of sarcastic indie comedies that reject sentimentality in favor of biting, above-it-all satire; as such, it’s forced to overcompensate just to get noticed (which presumably explains a series of terrible twists that emerge as Winkler tries to snap Erica out of her numb worldview). In the end, more ironic than the film’s abrasive, attention-seeking tone is the fact “Flower” barely made a ripple when it premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival — a fate it seems destined to repeat as it opens in theaters a year later.