Max Winkler’s “Flower” is nothing if not a coming-of-age story, but it’s explicitly clear from the very first scene that the film’s teen characters have already lost their innocence a long time ago. We open in the front seat of a cop car, as 17-year-old Erica (“Before I Fall” star Zoey Deutch, acing another tricky lead role) gives a dispassionate blowjob to a uniformed police officer. Not that she doesn’t enjoy giving head — Erica has a sketchbook filled with immaculate drawings of every penis that she’s ever put in her mouth — but, like just about all of her sexual encounters to date, this hook up is purely transactional. When the cop asks her where she learned to suck dick like that, Erica bluntly replies: “Middle school.”
It’s a simple grift, and one that’s never played for titillation: Erica uses her jailbait charms to seduce the pants off whatever skeezy men she can find in the San Fernando Valley, her friends pop up out of the bushes and capture footage of the statutory rape on their iPhones, and then they kindly escort their marks to the nearest ATM for a tidy payout. It sounds criminal, but Erica thinks of it more like vigilante justice that’s been seasoned with some light entrapment. And besides, it’s not like she’s blowing (er, spending) the money on good drugs or new clothes or anything so hedonistic. On the contrary, she’s putting the cash into a piggybank, accounting for it on a spreadsheet, and saving up to bail her low-rent father out of prison.
Like everything about the movie she defines, Erica is suspended somewhere between male fantasy and female power trip; she’s spirited and spunky enough to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but scary enough to leave you for dead if the circumstances call for it. She’s in every scene of this shaggy (but occasionally sharp) black comedy, and she’s by far the most compelling thing about it — Deutch is as nuanced and humane as any actress of her generation, and she makes her character believable throughout a movie that gleefully tests the bounds of believability. For example, when Erica first meets her future stepbrother, Luke (Joey Morgan, playing a husky 18-year-old who’s fresh out of rehab), she tries to ease one of his panic attacks by offering him a blowjob.
Luke declines the quasi-incestuous opportunity, but “Flower” only grows more bizarre as it blossoms from there, the plot kicking into gear when Erica learns that the handsome older guy she likes to ogle at the local bowling alley (Adam Scott) happens to be the same person who molested her new sibling a few years back. Naturally, Erica decides to make him into her next target, but things get all complicated and violent when our deceptively confident teenage heroine finds herself split between her daddy issues and her family matters. A strange but slight cross between “The Bling Ring” and “Badlands” with a little vintage Mike White flavor thrown in their for good measure, Winkler’s second feature — his first since 2010’s “Ceremony” — is entertaining from start to finish, even if it fails to do do justice to its singular lead character.
The raggedy script is the biggest issue. A tonally uneven roller-coaster for which the director shares credit with Alex McAulay and “Ingrid Goes West” director Matt Spicer, it never quite figures out how to vivisect Erica’s vulnerabilities, but it’s full of memorable little moments (“He looks like he should smell bad, but he doesn’t,” Erica comments when pressed to say something nice about Luke), and Winkler’s cast holds this off-kilter exercise together. Dylan Gelula, so phenomenal in last year’s “First Girl I Loved,” is wasted in an underwritten role as one of Erica’s best friends, but Kathryn Hahn keeps things grounded as Erica’s frustrated mother, and Tim Heidecker’s characteristically post-ironic performance as her future stepfather helps make it difficult to pin the story down or predict where its sympathies might lie.
But, for all of the help that she gets, there’s still no doubt that Deutch is the film’s life force and center of gravity. When “Flower” blooms, it does so because she wills it to. At times, her performance is perhaps even too strong for the film that’s cobbled together around it, as the actress so convincingly indicates at Erica’s vibrant and complex inner life that she embarrasses the script’s feeble attempts to diagnose and solve her character.
All of the shame that Erica doesn’t feel, all of the hurt that she’s trying to fend off, they only feel real when Winkler backs off and gives the girl some space. The story, kooky as it gets, can’t help but try to put her in a box — we learn more about who Erica is and what she needs through the hazy soft lighting that filters into her bedroom, through the Angel Olsen song she chooses to play for Luke, and through the uneven handheld shots of her slightly nervous eyes than we do from anything that happens to her. Even when the movie ends, we feel like we’re only scratching the surface. Still, how refreshing to see a coming-of-age story that’s less concerned about a teen losing her innocence than it is in how she might earn some of it back.
“Flower” premiered in the U.S. Narrative Competition of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. The Orchard will release it later this year.