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It’s hard to know whether Erica Vandross, the 17-year-old at the center of Max Winkler’s “Flower,” is meant to be an a-hole we unexpectedly like or a likeable person who sometimes behaves like an a-hole, but Zoey Deutch’s performance constitutes one of the most curious mis-applications of natural acting charisma I’ve ever seen.
Deutch, winning in a lot of films unworthy of her (“Why Him,” “Dirty Grandpa,” “Vampire Academy”), commands the screen as if the quandary doesn’t matter, while Winkler and co-screenwriters Alex McAulay and Matt Spicer construct a story that lurks somewhere between “Sixteen Candles,” “Palo Alto” and “Fish Tank” but without the humor, insight or poetry needed to match her fearless, irresistible talent.
Deutch plays Erica Vandross, a San Fernando Valley teenager trying to earn enough money to spring her estranged father from jail by seducing local sleazeballs and then shaking them down for cash. Though she’s stayed willfully oblivious to the relationship her frazzled bohemian mom Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) starts with a kind-hearted square named Bob (Tim Heidecker), Erica finds her life turned upside down after his troubled son Luke (Joey Morgan, “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) arrives fresh and vulnerable from rehab.
At Laurie’s urging, Erica and Luke form a tenuous bond largely built on the few semi-friendly exchanges they share when she isn’t being mercilessly blunt. But after learning that much of Luke’s pain comes from an unresolved claim that he was sexually assaulted by Will (Adam Scott), a former teacher who still lives in their community, Erica recruits high school cohorts Kala (Dylan Gelula, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and Claudine (Maya Eshet, “Teen Wolf”) to avenge her future step-brother, unleashing a chain of events that forces them to deal with the very adult consequences of their teenage games whether they’re ready to or not.
The reason that so much of “Flower” works as well as it does is because it’s anchored so deeply by Deutch’s performance, which effortlessly dances on that razor’s edge between sympathetic and insufferable. There’s something identifiable and occasionally even charming about Erica, who is savvier and more streetwise than any of her adult counterparts, but she’s driven by a desperate absence of guidance — an almost clichéd need for some kind of structure or limitations — that leads her to suitably misguided choices.
As a teen trying to navigate her way through not one but two fractured parental relationships, Deutch imbues Erica with an agency that feels at once wildly unseemly, perversely appealing and utterly believable, the precise sort of preternatural maturity that would ensnare susceptible men not just against their better judgment, but hers as well.
The remainder of the cast bring their characters to vivid, believable life, from Gelula and Eshet’s dopey, media-saturated teenage wokeness as Erica’s partners in crime to Hahn’s apologetic, perfectly scattered take on Laurie’s laissez-faire parenting. For a comedian exceptionally skilled at going broad, and weird, Tim Heidecker offers a skillfully understated take as the uncool suitor who wins Laurie’s heart (and shows her firebrand daughter uncommon, and largely undeserved, patience), while Adam Scott manages to be convincingly skeptical — if not quite heedless enough — in his dealings with Erica, particularly as a man living in the shadow of an appropriately insurmountable accusation.
Unfortunately, Winkler and his co-screenwriters further muddy the intriguing moral complexity of Erica’s cycle of seduction and exploitation, as well as Luke’s molestation claims, first by interjecting her burgeoning feelings for Will into their pursuit of “justice,” and then by turning the story upside down with a series of events that feel increasingly implausible and “movie-ish,” maybe unless John Hughes was writing them three or more decades ago.
The nuanced character development of early scenes is replaced with a cartoonish sort of escalation of stakes, not to mention some improbable choices, including a disastrously-timed confession of feelings, that would have been rightfully, perhaps satisfyingly called out by the characters had they maintained the wry self-awareness that initially made them so complex, unique and interesting.
Further, and even without conversations in the zeitgeist providing an unflattering context for the events in the film, there’s a reasonable question whether, even if only incidentally, “Flower” devalues the claims of real victims by suggesting they’re lying, enticing perpetrators or otherwise complicit in the power dynamics that lead to assault and molestation. Certainly, the movie sides with the teens, and Winkler’s portrayal of these awful acts offers little sympathy for those who seem to need little encouragement to take advantage of others.
But using these crimes as little more than a plot device ultimately feels like a distraction, and a sleazy one, from the pain and loneliness that drives the teens on screen to try and reclaim their power in such wrongheaded, and eventually, much more destructive ways — at least, if the movie didn’t try to wrap everything up in a shockingly tidy, counterintuitive bow.
“Flower” marks Winkler’s second feature after the 2010 comedy “Ceremony,” which felt to Noah Baumbach what this film does to Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto,” or Sofia’s “Bling Ring”: a counterpart or alternative mining similar territory but trading substance for effervescence. With a different beginning, “Flower” could have paid cheerful tribute to the liberating powers of teenage romance; with a different ending, it could have captured the melancholy fragility of teen self-discovery.
Instead, audiences get a collection of great performances, led by a truly exceptional one, in search of a script that’s worthy of them in a movie with so much to offer that disappointingly, but bafflingly, seems determined to add up to less than the sum of its parts.