Flower is the type of movie that tests your tolerance for misguided youth. It opens immediately with the scene of our teenage protagonist having sex with a police officer and then extorting money out of him for her silence, all with a chipper smile and scathing comments. She’s not just a whore for money but a girl who is saving that money for a noble goal. And that goal will have to be kept in mind at all times as her life tailspins into a mess of criminal acts so nasty that the tender resolve pulls up too late to save whatever heart may have been there.
Zoey Deutch plays Erica as a recluse of a teenager bound for disaster. She unapologetically has sex for money but will still get into fights at school if anyone calls her a whore. She’s possessive of her mother (Kathryn Hahn), who seems to have given up being the maternal figure and is just enjoying the chummy ride as she struggles with completing a degree—so you can imagine how well Erica takes the news of a potential stepdad (Tim Heidecker) coming into her life with his depressive son, Luke (Joey Morgan). She will naturally antagonize these new people in her life, though she eventually tries to relate to Luke, considering he doesn’t like his current situation either. It’s just too bad Erica’s avenues of sympathy are so grossly limited that the first nice thing she can think to do for Luke is have sex with him.
But the movie is more than just Erica and Luke having awkward feelings for each other. Erica has the hots for Will (Adam Scott), the adult she is constantly checking out at the bowling alley. If you’re getting some uncomfortable Lolita vibes from this, you should stick with your gut on this one. While the scenes between Erica and Will are not the most cringe-worthy concerning dialogue and chemistry, they always carry an uncomfortable tone. But just in case it wasn’t apparent how creepy this all is, the movie goes the extra mile by having Luke accuse Will of having sexually molested him when he was the boy’s teacher. That’s a horrifying revelation, and yet the film still has the nerve to present it as a Scooby-Doo mystery for the kids to solve, cracking jokes on their stakeouts and snarkily commenting that they’re probably not going to find their target raping children on the way to his car.
The flaws keep spinning and swirling as nearly every character lies, manipulates, and screams at each other to either get what they want or lash out at the world around them. There have been plenty of films about the lives of the trashy teenage world that present colorful, flawed, and sympathetic characters trapped in a consumer wasteland, from The Florida Project to American Honey. But Flower tries so hard to concoct both a criminal mystery and a sympathetic plight that it ultimately ends up shoving the audience away in its “screw this life” attitude. I suppose it also wants us to laugh when Erica starts making zingers after sexually servicing adults.
This is the type of film that is so indifferent to its tale of teenage mistakes that I was initially passive about its ugliness but found myself more disgusted with it over time. The ending was so unbelievably contrived in how it attempted to pump the brakes on the vileness of the characters that I almost appreciated the film trying to pull itself out of the mud. But it’s still a film filthy with uncomfortable elements that don’t add up to the happy ending it was aiming towards, trying to shoo away murder, prostitution, and thievery as the folly of youth. Sure, because what young girl hasn’t accidentally killed a guy and then taken sexy photos with his corpse to make it look like he was committing suicide to avoid the scandal? Rarely have I seen a film try so hard to be putrid and heartfelt at the same time. And with how toxic the script becomes with its characters, you can probably guess which tone it achieves best.