Flower (Max Winkler, 2018) 1½ out of 4 stars.
If the very first scene of Max Winkler’s second feature, Flower, don’t turn you completely off the movie, there’s a chance you’ll emerge at the other end having had a better experience than I did. It’s not just that we watch a 17-year-old girl fellating a cop, then bribing him to keep quiet, but that we quickly realize that this is how she and her friends operate, earning quick money on the side through sexual extortion. Though Erica travels in a pack of three, it’s she who does the dirty deed every time, claiming to love it. This is called, in dramatic terms, a telegraphing of major issues, and as it turns out, she’s got them. Daddy issues, especially.
All this money, it transpires, is to bail her father out of jail. Mom’s got a new beau, but all little Erica can think about is getting dad back somehow. When that boyfriend brings home his own son, just of rehab and extremely needy, Erica wants none of him. Until she discovers that his issues might just dovetail with her own, and she can help him by helping herself. Of course, more inappropriate sex is involved, so hold down your lunch, as it gets gross.
It’s not that twisted sexual material is always disgusting, that it just never feels like more than an overt attempt to shock for shock’s sake, here. Lead actress Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall), though appealing enough, cannot quite convey the seediness and despair of her character: we feel her slumming. Joey Morgan (Compadres), as hew new step-brother (of sorts), fares a little better, but even he cannot quite rise above the sordid material. Nor can Kathryn Hahn (Amazon’s I Love Dick), as Erica’s mom, almost always perfect in everything she does, but here hobbled by two much false hysteria. Adam Scott (My Blind Brother), as Erica’s new mark, shows up with his usual charisma, and is the only one who truly carries his scenes, though the shallow device that his character reveals itself to be destroys most of his fine efforts.
The film is not a total loss. Winkler (Ceremony) has a good sense of composition and editing, and succeeds in creating some tense, atmospheric moments, creating on-screen complexity that is in direct opposition to the reductive way the script treats sex and trauma. Yes, people act out when they’re unhappy. Usually, however, their efforts are not reduced to pop-psychological pablum like this.