WILDFLOWER (2023) – Review
This Friday sees the release of a “coming of age” story with a couple of very interesting twists. Yes, it’s about a young woman yearning to break free of her childhood home as she approaches the end of high school. Of course, there’s all the college prep, changing friendships, and even a new budding romance. Now, here’s the big detour: she’s conflicted as she believes her folks can’t really fend for themselves. In fact, many might think that she’s really “raising” them. So there’s the conflict between exploration and guilt. And it is “inspired by real events”, in fact, it’s a dramatized take on a documentary from a couple of years ago. Plus it touches on many similar themes as a film from earlier in the month. So, with this young woman’s blossoming new life, could she be the title’s WILDFLOWER?
The opening of the story has us following Las Vegas high school senior Bea Johnson (Kiernan Shipka) through her nearby suburban street, far from the “strip”.A quick cut and she’s sleeping in a hospital bed. Actually, she’s in a coma, As her family flits in and out of the room, Bea narrates a long flashback, in hopes of recalling how she got here. The locale shifts to a nearby California suburb as hunky Derek (Dash Mihok) mows the lawn of the home of Peg (Jean Smart) and Earl (Brad Garrett) as their smitten daughter Sharon (Samantha Hyde) watches. The folks allow her to bring him a lemonade, believing nothing will come of it. Sharon is developmentally challenged from birth, while Derek endured a brain injury when he was seven, leaving her mental capacity at that age. Of course, soon the young couple elopes, prompting a “sit down” with Peg, Earl, and Derek’s parents from Vegas, Loretta (Jackie Weaver) and ‘Papa J’ (Chris Mulkey). The decision to not get the marriage annulled leads to talk of Sharon getting sterilized. A horrified Peg takes it “off the table”, since they surely won’t start a family. Naturally, Sharon soon gives birth to Bambi (later she would insist on going by Bea). The new family puts down roots in Vegas, and all seems to go well until “the truck incident”, which prompts Sharon’s sister Joy (Alexandra Daddario) to swoop in with hubby Ben (Reid Scott) in order to eventually take custody of her. But Bea’s free-spirited nature makes for a poor “match” and soon she’s back with her folks. Bea shines academically, takes over housekeeping duties, and even has an afterschool job. As she begins her final high school year, a helpful guidance counselor nudges her to apply for scholarships, while Bea acts on an attraction to a new student, the rich, hunky Ethan (Charlie Plummer). But could he handle the unconventional Johnson family structure? And can Bea even think of leaving the increasingly dependent Sharon and Derek? Could all that pressure have led up to the coma?
Shipka delivers on the promise of her excellent TV work as Sally Draper on the iconic “Mad Men”. As with that role, she conveys a sharp wit, delivering the proper amount of snark with every “burn”, but her Bea is more than a “Daria” clone (another cable TV reference). With her confident line delivery and gestures, we see the affection and frustration she feels for her folks, tempered with her close bond with her school BFF (played with great charm by Kannon) and her hesitant romance. Kudos also to Ryan Liera Armstrong who is spot on as a pre-teen Bea. As dad Derek, Mihok is an endearing “man-child” with no filter as he peppers strangers with religious queries while never losing his dignity. He’s matched by the entertaining Hyde whose defiant pout speaks volumes. Plummer’s also effective as Bea’s dream guy, Ethan, who truly sees her soaring spirit. The addition of Smart as Peg super-charges the few scenes she has, even as she’s often regulated to being “the voice of reason” and the exasperated “straight woman” to the hi-jinks of the unique crew, especially Weaver as the boisterous flamboyant Loretta. Garret is again the sweet, often clueless lumbering “sad sack”, perhaps a cousin of his CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH step-pop. Daddario and Scott make a good comic team as the well-intentioned up-tight “helicopter parents”. Also effective is Erika Alexander as a sympathetic social worker who pops in and out of Bea’s life.
The whole production is a kind-hearted “indie” slice of life which will probably be unfairly compared to last year’s big Oscar-winner CODA and that flick from a couple of weeks ago CHAMPIONS. It compares well with the latter, but the treatment of the parents in this fall short of the scrappy crab-haulers of the former. Too often Bea’s folks are there as a roadblock or a challenge to her goals. Fortunately, there’s plenty of warmth in their encounters in between the chaos, as they contend with “the system”. Much the same can be said of Bea as she “acts out” in the convoluted third act (the “MEAN GIRLS/HEATHERS” subplot feels forced). Plus the cartoonish schtick of a major supporting player feels lifted from a farce. The Vegas settings are great, but other local touches feel dated (slot racing emporiums…today). Director Matt Smukler never stoops to exploitation of the mentally challenged and makes a good plea for compassion (he expands his 2020 doc short), but despite the terrific ensemble cast, led by the compelling Shipka, WILDFLOWER doesn’t quite reach for the sun.
2.5 Out of 4
WILDFLOWER opens in select theatres on Friday, March 17, 2023