The problem with Flower is that it is smart, clever, and knowing. As a critic, this can throw you off when a film appears to fail, befuddle, or just become increasingly noxious. Flower is a prime case of this, its strengths and layers making it hard to dismiss even as it goes very, very far off the rails. Flower isn’t a simple movie, and it does both the film and the audience a disservice to simply wave it away. But in the end, Flower may not deserve very much more than that, and the very fact that it’s so difficult to tell is part of Flower’s ultimate problem, one of intellectual and emotional cowardice masquerading as sophistication.
Flower is about
Juno MacGuff Erica Vandross (Zoey Deutch), a very self-assured, sassy, and witty teen who is running an underage blowjob extortion ring with the help of her girlfriends (Maya Eshet and Dylan Gelula) in order to scrounge up bail money for her imprisoned father. Her world gets spun out of shape when her superficially-indulgent mother (Kathryn Hahn, excellent) brings home her latest boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker, very excellent) who comes not just with nerdy middle-class white dadness but with real baggage in the form of son Luke (Joey Morgan). Luke just got out of rehab, you see, and may or may not have been molested by his middle-school teacher Will Jordan (Adam Scott) who is also the “hot old guy” who frequents the bowling alley that Erica and crew also putter around. Will seems the natural extension of Erica’s main scheme, as well as her way to trying to express some kind of solidarity or support for her new family, but things go, um, not according to plan, in one of the wilder tonal/narrative shifts I’ve ever seen in a movie, like watching Little Miss Sunshine suddenly cut into Thelma and Louise.
One major tell that Flower isn’t what it thinks it is is that it fails the Bechdel test, despite not only having a female protagonist but having many scenes in which she interacts entirely with her mother or her girl posse. Another tell is that Flower drops that posse from its story the moment their hijinx misalign with the film’s shift and tone and dealing with them becomes narratively inconvenient. Another tell is that film repeatedly challenges, or at least has Erica repeatedly challenge us, to not judge her for her proclivity for oral sex, without ever engaging with the fact that she’s repeatedly putting herself in a massive amount of danger by putting herself in compromising isolated situations with older men and then giving them cause for panic. Another tell is that Flower thinks penetrative heterosexual sex is both cause and symptom of true love – or does it? Hard to tell – and that’s the problem.
I think Erica is supposed to be a critique of Gillian Flynn’s “cool girl,” of the manic pixie dream girl, of a certain archetype and fantasy perpetuated by Garden State and, yes, Juno, and all its successors. I think her wit, sass, and assurance are not supposed to be taken at face value, but instead interpreted as a defense mechanism…I think. I think the fact that she shifts her emotional allegiance in a very unhealthy way from one absent-due-to-imprisonment male to another is supposed to be a comment of some kind; same with her weird attraction to Will. I think the movie’s ending isn’t supposed to be taken the way everything about it is shot, edited, and performed…I think. I think her obvious oral fixation is supposed to tell us something, but was it that she was neglected as a child? I think?
I think, I think, I think but there’s no way to be sure: at some point, you realize that Flower tries to have it every way by never taking a stance, but vacillating in its perspective towards, and distance from, its protagonist especially. It’s hard to say Flower lacks the courage of its convictions when there’s no evidence it has any convictions at all, other than the shock jock’s conviction that scandalizing its audience is an end and not just a means. Flower is indeed, smart, clever, and knowing – it’s also ultimately vacuous, superficial, and self-absorbed. In that way, there’s no distance between it and its protagonist at all.