Critics talk a lot about “tone” or, rather, the vibe or attitude of a movie — whether it’s breezy, paranoiac, heartfelt, cerebral, manic, comic, oddball, melancholic and on and on. Blending tones within a film isn’t impossible. It’s helpful to think of tones like colors on the wheel and filmmakers as mixing complementary shades. But every so often, a writer combines two distinct tones in such a way that at first they seem to clash — and then the result becomes so harmonious that it’s a wonder someone hadn’t tried it before. Matt Spicer is one of those.
As the writer/director of Ingrid Goes West and now the writer — along with Alex McAulay and Max Winkler — of the teen comic drama Flower (directed by Winkler), Spicer is claiming a niche as the go-to guy for adding drama and especially outrageous moments of danger to satirical contemporary portraits of young people fucking around. In both Ingrid and now Flower, what at first seems like a rather simple dramatic arc — with the protagonist learning something about life and herself — crashes into a series of calamitous, shocking events that may leave you cringing as they stretch the bounds of believability. And yet, they are believable, mostly because Spicer is a wizard at grounding his work in realistic dialogue.
Think of Flower as a little like Sofia Coppola’s teen-thief satire The Bling Ring with the realism and consequences to bad behavior of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen. Zoey Deutch plays 17-year-old Erica, whom we first meet as she’s giving head to a cop in his car. She then casually blackmails him for engaging in oral sex with a minor — she and the two gal-pals who filmed it score $400 for their troubles and a future bargaining chip. Erica has got a spreadsheet of all the older men she has already blackmailed; she may not be great in school, but she’s a seasoned businesswoman. What stands out about Erica is that she — like Ingrid before her — is shameless. Erica is presented as just acting on instinct, secure on her very own morality plane (“A guy goes around eating pussy, and nobody calls him a slut”), and Deutch is exactly the right actor to sell this character. It’s the catty classmate who tries to berate Erica for sucking dick who’s the villain.
In last year’s undersung sci-fi teen drama Before I Fall, Deutch played a guileless girl who must relive the same day over and over to learn a lesson. She was luminous and vulnerable, the very picture of a good-hearted young woman trying the best she can. Here, she’s a gum-smacking wit with an eyebrow raised yet with an openness in her face, like The Fool in the Tarot deck, ready to follow any celestial signs, even if they lead her off a cliff.
Erica’s life gets complicated when she meets her soon-to-be stepbrother Luke (Joey Morgan), an overweight 18-year-old who’s just getting out of rehab for taking pills. Erica’s mother, Laurie (Kathryn Hahn), forces Erica to befriend Luke. At first, the two seem an odd couple; she’s a fan of confrontational tough love, like when she finds Luke trying to hang himself in the garage, and her first instinct is to half-sneer, “What the fuck are you doing?” like she knows this whole ordeal is gonna really eat into her night. Hell, the first time the two really talk, Erica offers to go down on him, because he’s feeling bad and having panic attacks; Erica is transactional and methodical, a girl who has learned a certain way to get along in life and doesn’t see a reason to stop. Luke is eventually taken by her kindness and honesty.
When Luke reveals that a former teacher of his, Will (Adam Scott), once molested him, Erica is ride-or-die ready to get photos of Will in a compromising position and blackmail him to make Luke feel better, to disastrous results. During the confrontation with Will, Winkler allows his characters to finally face some consequences to their actions. But Erica quickly moves past panic, fear and sadness, her mind doing what it does best: rationalizing. She convinces herself that Will deserves whatever befalls him. What Flower — and Ingrid — do especially well is allow their flawed characters to evolve only the tiniest bit. They don’t learn the lessons we want them to learn, the lessons flawed movie protagonists forever are learning. Instead, Winkler’s troubled heroes take away the wrong lesson, while the filmmakers refrain from judgment. Flower is messy and imperfect and above all else a star-making role for Deutch, who carries this film from funny to tragic and back again.