Zoey Deutch Glows in Intimate, Affecting Piece
Playing currently at your local theater, hidden somewhere in the shadows of blockbusters like Black Panther and Ready Player One, and critical darlings like The Death of Stalin and Isle of Dogs is an intimate, beautiful gem of picture called Flower. Directed by Max Winkler (New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and starring Zoey Deutch (Why Him?), Flower is an incredibly perceptive exploration of mental illness, addiction and family dynamics that develops into a touching story of two young people who need nothing more than to feel unconditional love.
Played masterfully by a quick-witted and viciously sarcastic Deutch in the leading role, Erica, the film’s protagonist, opens the film fellating a police officer before her friends Kala (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet) roll up on their bikes to collect pictorial evidence of the illicit tryst. Erica, a 17-year-old, informs Officer Dale (Eric Edelstein) that he just got head from a minor, and after a quick trip to empty Dale’s checking account, our hero’s journey has begun.
Flower skews decidedly pro-feminist when it comes to Deutch, who exploits her sexuality throughout for intended personal gain and makes no apologies for it, positing at one point that society wouldn’t care if a boy were as skilled at cunnilingus as she was at giving blow-jobs. Erica is raised by a single mother, Laurie, played by Kathryn Hahn in a rare dramatic role that she knocks out of the park, after her father is sent to prison for robbing a casino. The relationship between Hahn and Deutch is close-knit, more of a friendship than a traditional parent-daughter relationship, and the result is an independent but deeply-emotional young woman in the form of Erica, one whose recklessness comes with a price.
But while Winkler speaks to feminist themes through Erica, he also delineates the film’s feminism from patriarchal gender roles through the character of Laurie. At first, Laurie comes off as a “cool mother” type, the kind who would let kids drink at her house, so long as they promise to pass out in the living room and not drive home. But in an emotional confrontation with her daughter after the police show up to question Erica at their home, Laurie reveals that she depends on Erica’s stepfather Bob (Tim Heidecker) for far more than we previously assume, specifically emotional support that she was initially unable to find after Erica’s father was sent to prison. The scene is one of the film’s finest, and it draws a line in the sand between the collective perspective of mother and daughter. While we sympathize with Laurie, having already come to understand Erica as lovable, but flawed and difficult to deal with, we also empathize with Erica’s position – she has lost her father, and now it feels like her mother is abandoning her for her step-father, a more isolating predicament one is hard-pressed to imagine.
The scene is the film’s second plot-point, leading toward the climax in which Luke (Joey Morgan) confesses his true feelings for Erica and she finally receives what she’s been looking for her entire life – Unconditional love.
To understand the complicated characters of Erica and Luke, our pseudo Bonnie-and-Clyde in this understated narrative, one must be cognizant to feelings of self-hatred. When a person experiences a great deal of pain connected to emotions of isolation that stem from not fitting into cultural norms, self-hatred is the result. Luke is a fat kid. When you grow up a fat kid, you learn what it means to be discriminated against, what it means to be bullied, what it means to live with embarrassment and what it means to desire an out. Many people who grow up in these conditions turn to drugs to self-medicate, as is the case with Luke. When Erica and Laurie travel to the rehab clinic with Bob to pick up Luke at the film’s first plot-point, Erica says, “Junkies are supposed to be skinny.” She’s disappointed that Luke doesn’t fit her preconceived notion of what a drug addict is, but the line also speaks to the script’s spot-on perception of what addiction truly is: An escape. Addiction affects people of all shapes, sizes and colors because in the end, all humans deal with pain in the same way – by hiding from the emotion. That’s how addiction begins, and how it remains. For Luke, opioids are his escape hatch. When he leaves rehab, the chemical dependence is beginning to subside, but the emotional toxicity filling his head with anxiety, his heart with depression and his body with nervous jitters is flooding back in full force.
While Luke’s self-hatred stems from negative body perceptions and a lifetime of social isolation, Erica’s self-hatred is derived in her relationship with her father. We learn very little about the man who left Laurie and Erica behind, but what we do learn tells us what we need to know about Erica. Whenever she describes the casino robbery, Erica puts a glimmering shine on it, as if her father got the best of the casino, and the other way around. We learn that all the money Erica is raising with her blow-job-blackmail schemes is in an attempt to bail her father out of prison. She calls her dad because she “hasn’t heard from him in a while,” and when she does finally show up to bail him out, he has already been freed by someone else’s money and without so much as a word of notice to his daughter. Erica receives the news with predictable shock, and as Winkler’s camera slowly pushes in on her, we realize that she may be finally accepting what everyone else already knows: Her father is incapable of loving her the way she needs and deserves.
Erica carries herself with great pride throughout the film, but Deutch manages to show us subtle hints of a dark underbelly to Erica’s self-esteem, one in which the girl hates herself because her father doesn’t love her. When Luke comes into Erica’s life, she doesn’t reject him out of hand, instead, she’s fascinated by him. As they grow closer and closer, Erica begins to transfer hope toward him and away from her father. This can be seen without a word of dialogue (where truly great acting is always found) during a scene in which Luke and Erica dance in the backyard: Deutch rests her head delicately on Morgan’s shoulder in a beautiful, meandering medium close-up that reveals Erica’s feelings through a questioning, unsettled stare. Later, the shot is mirrored during the scene in which Luke confesses his love on the way to Mexico. Luke finally finds his courage and tells Erica he loves her. She doesn’t respond, instead, she simply stares back, tears building – she has found the love she’s needed all this time. All that’s left is the kiss.
The film is filled with incredible performances all around. Adam Scott does an amazing job playing the film’s antagonist, Will, a former teacher who is fired after accusations of pedophilia. It’s an exceptionally challenging role – it can’t be easy to get inside the mind pedophile – but Scott pulls it off with the requisite mix of off-putting, contradictory and ultimately despicable behavior. The relationship between Will and Luke is at the heart of the film’s plot, and it’s important that Scott play his role with a bit of ambiguity – we must question whether or not he is truly a bad guy for most of the film, and even though we see him act inappropriately up until he is killed, we never really know for sure whether or not Will “did it.” The truth is finally revealed in the picture’s finest sequence, but the scene wouldn’t have the emotional impact it does had Scott phoned his role in. He didn’t. He balanced the high-wire and played the character with impressive precision, and the emotional stakes were raised as a result.
The film is also blessed with an honest performance from Tim Heidecker, who plays Erica’s stepfather with a mix of humor and heart that is offset by the annoying characteristics a stepfather can bring into the life of an unwilling teenager. After Luke attempts to kill himself, Heidecker and Deutch share an important scene in the hospital that develops their characters beautifully. Deutch lets down her guard for the first time, as does Heidecker, and as Erica and Bob become vulnerable to each other, we learn a great deal about Luke in the process. Our understanding of Erica’s feelings for Luke continue to evolve as well.
But for all the incredible performances in Flower, make no mistake about it, the star is unquestionably Deutch, who can carry an entire scene with a nothing more than subtle glance. It’s her eyes, never her words, that reveal her love of Luke. You can see the development from the second they sit down together in the restaurant. She is fascinated by Luke. Her mouth serves to distract, but her eyes reveal the truth. Before the two share their dance in the backyard, Deutch reveals her budding emotions in the way she looks at Luke. She stares wide-eyed, not bothering to look away.
Scene after scene, Deutch delivers the emotional goods, demanding our attention and stealing our empathy, all the while revealing Erica’s flaws truthfully. In the scene with Hahn in which Laurie rips into Erica for her selfish behavior in scaring off suitor after suitor, Erica is unable to see her mother’s perspective, even if we as an audience can. Deutch plays it perfectly, with the self-absorption of a teenage girl going through the unwanted assimilation of a step-father into her life, and because she does, we understand her mother better, even as we empathize with Erica for the pain her mother inflicts upon her.
Deutch deserves a windfall of well-deserved credit for her pinpoint accuracy in bringing to life an extremely complicated character. The depth of Erica is what carries the film from frame to frame – Flower is a vast exploration of Erica’s emotions, and it pulls you in and carries you throughout on the strength of Deutch’s performance.