In what turns out to be a pivotal scene in Flower, Erica (Zoey Deutch) explains her worldview to her newly acquired stepbrother, Luke (Joey Morgan). When he asks her if she's worried she'll be branded as a slut because of her willingness to give oral sex to just about anyone, including himself, she replies: "I don't care what other people think about me. Why are you looking at me like that? It's not like I fuck these dudes. If a dude goes around eating a bunch of pussy, nobody gives a fuck; nobody calls him a slut. It's called feminism."
On the surface, what she says is true. Women, and teenage girls especially, are held to a stricter — and far more confusing — sexual code than men. They're supposed to be attractive, but so attractive that they won't be taken seriously; they should be sexy, but not give it away too easily; engaging, but not promiscuous. Seeing a woman own her sexuality in such an overt and outspoken way should be empowering. But the fact that those words are spoken by a 17-year-old who earns money by having sex with older men and then blackmailing them, in a movie written and directed by men, does cause them to lose their bite somewhat.
Directed by Max Winkler (Ceremony), who co-wrote the script along with Alex McCauley and Matt Spicer (Ingrid Goes West), the dark comedy teeters between an attempt at emancipated womanhood, and the very male gaze it's trying to reject. When we first meet Erica (Deutch), she's giving a blowjob to a local cop, Dale, while her friends (Dylan Gelula, Maya Eshet) film from afar. The idea is to lure Dale into committing statutory rape, and then threaten him with a compromising video to get him to pay up. It turns out this is somewhat of a pastime for Erica, who's trying to save enough money to pay off her father's bail while he awaits trial for robbing a casino. When she's not hanging out at the bowling alley with her friends ogling the "hot older guy" (Adam Scott, in a casting choice that Hollywood keeps trying to feed us, and that I can't quite get behind) who spends his nights there, and documenting the dicks she's come into contact with in a sketchbook, she's leaving messages for her father on the prison's messaging system, updating him about her life, and her growing budget.
Things get a little more complicated however, when her mom's (Kathryn Hahn) new boyfriend Bob (Tim Heidecker), brings his son Luke to live with them after a stint in rehab. While the two don't exactly hit it off right away, they slowly develop a twisted but still touching friendship that gets cemented during an outing to the bowling alley — the same in which Erica lays out her stance on female sexuality. Luke spots a former teacher he once accused of molesting him, who turns out to be the same "hot older guy" Erica has been eyeing. He was fired, but never charged, and so Erica comes up with a plan to seduce him in order to expose him as a sexual predator, all in the name of justice for Luke. Needless to say, it doesn't quite work out as planned.
It's an edgy concept, with some really sharp dialogue and performance, but one that never quite takes off. Maybe that's because, in a post #MeToo world, Erica's vindictive quest holds echoes of the fears voiced by so many men that this all could go too far; that they could be wrongly accused, found guilty, and sentenced before being allowed due process. It's difficult to see her growing spreadsheet of payoffs from men who have taken advantage of a young woman — no matter how much she tells herself that she's the one in control — and not make a mental leap to the power imbalance at work in Hollywood that enabled many such scenarios to take place offscreen.
Still, in a commendable move that suggests some self-awareness as a man directing a young woman in a provocative role, Winkler did make a conscious effort to seek out and hire women in advisory roles, and as part of the crew. Caroline Goldfarb came on as consulting producer, along with Maritte Lee Go as unit production manager/line producer, Sarah Beth Shapiro as editor, Tricia Robertson as production designer, and Michelle Thompson as costume designer. (This isn't to say that men can't write roles for women, and vice versa. The problem comes when the only female stories we see onscreen are those orchestrated and curated by men, to then be internalized by women.)
As Erica, Deutch is thrilling to watch, proving she's more than just a commercially-viable vehicle for mainstream teen comedies like Before I Fall, or the cool girl to balance out the bros, like in Everybody Wants Some. In fact, I often found myself wishing Flower was better so as to give her a more compelling springboard into the kind of serious stardom she's sure to ascend to. She carries the film, appearing in every scene, and gives an injection of gritty reality to a character who could otherwise have felt like a stand-in for the sexually curious millennial woman. But even her striking performance isn't enough to hide the fact that we don't ever get to know Erica beyond her reputation as the "dick whisperer," and the fact that she has major daddy issues. There are depths to be plumbed here, and it's a shame the film doesn't bust out the drill. The same goes for Hahn as Erica's overly permissive and frazzled mother, who admires her daughter's spunk while also feeling somewhat ashamed of her — honestly, I could watch a whole other movie about their relationship. Lady Bird, Part II anyone?
Ultimately, Flower is at its strongest and most captivating when it's giving us a glimpse into the mind of a young woman who both embodies the most progressive tenants of sex-positive feminism, while also being held captive by them. And though the film has its flaws, it's worth a watch just to see Deutch bloom.
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