Sometimes a movie comes along that completely defies expectation, that comes out of left field and hits you in the gut before you get the chance to prepare yourself. That was my experience with Flower. The film is a product of a serendipitous pairing: 36-year old director Max Winkler and 23-year old actress Zoey Deutch (34 and 21, respectively, when filming Flower). Winkler has a youthful and vibrant cadence as a director, and combined with Deutch’s unhinged, fully compelling performance in the lead role, I left Flower almost in a daze. I didn’t know, even, if I liked the film. I just knew that I’d seen something special.
Flower is a coming-of-age story, about a teenage girl named Erica (Deutch). The movie opens with Erica in a police car, giving a blowjob to a police officer who she will, with the aid of her friends, blackmail and extract hundreds of dollars from. This is a racket that Erica is running in hopes to bail her dad out of jail. She is a defense mechanism incarnate. She pushes people says, says the wrong things, acts brazenly in every scenario, all in an attempt to protect herself from harm. That protective shell is threatened, though, when her new stepbrother, Luke (Joey Morgan), is released from rehab and moves in with her mom (Kathryn Hahn) and stepdad (Tim Heidecker).
Luke was addicted to pills, a result of having been abused by a teacher when he was younger. Despite Erica’s initial awkwardness toward Luke (she tries to give him a blowjob to cool his panic attacks…), she takes to him as a friend, and decides to help him by plotting revenge against the man who allegedly abused Luke (Adam Scott).
What unfolds is a madcap story that defies the limits of your average Young Adult movie. Despite the unwieldy plot, though, Winkler and Deutch never lose control of their funny and tragic story. Instead, they build something so bizarrely satisfying and emotionally honest that, whether you love it or hate, you can be sure that you’ll remember Flower.
I talked to Max Winkler about why he made this movie, what teen movies he seeks out for inspiration, and what it was like to direct a singular talent like Tim Heidecker.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
Christopher Zumski Finke: What made Flower a great fit for you as a director?
Max Winkler: I related a lot to the main character. I felt at the time, I think most 17 year olds, feel deeply misunderstood. I felt very out of control in my life and looking for some semblance of control and when you’re 17 you feel like your parents can’t possibly understand and no adults really can. I acted out a lot and got into more trouble than I should based on just wanting to feel some control over my circumstances. Though I think what Erika does is not always right in her actions, I think her heart and her intentions are always in the right place. Sometimes as kids we take on these causes and make them about ourselves in order to mask these feelings of intense pain and anxiety that we’re feeling but we don’t want to let people in on. I really related to that part of her character.
CZF: Erika seems to say the most inappropriate thing at every opportunity—
MW: I think she’s just acting out. I think she’s got a home life that’s up in the air with people moving in and people moving out, I think she’s testing boundaries, testing how far she can push people before she pushes them away. And for the most part her actions do push people away. When that happens she can say, see you proved me right I knew you were going to leave. She really is reeling over the abandonment by her father that she is not able to articulate into words. I really have great empathy for that.
CZF: As an audience member, what makes her inappropriate on screen is the same thing that I was charmed by, the impulse to always be to pushing those boundaries like you said. One subject in the film seems to be the idea of boundaries, appropriate behavior, creating levels, crafting discreet boundaries, like Erica giving blowjobs but not having sex. Is that something you were interested in exploring?
MW: I am interested in control, in exploring someone looking for control in her life. I think she’s found this one thing she can do that is her choice, and her decision, that men in both pop culture and in movies and in real life can do constantly. She alludes to it in the bowling alley, she says if a guy was walking around doing all this stuff no one would call him a slut. She’s reacting to things she has little control over, which is the people in her life and anything other than her actions. Which keeps people from getting in and having any real intimacy with her. Because she keeps them at an arm’s length. By the end of the movie she learns to accept that. Instead of a loss of innocence movie she regains her innocence. She becomes a kid at the end of the movie and is able to smile because she finds love, like real love, for the first time. She’s able to love herself.
CZF: Teen movies, or coming-of-age movies, more than other genres, seem to be in dialogue with other movies that have come before. Did you think about other specific teen or coming-of-age films?
CZF: What movies is Flower engaged in dialogue with?
MW: I thought about John Hughes Movies, a great deal, I thought about an Andrea Arnold film called Fish Tank a lot, I thought about Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, starting with The 400 Blows, I thought about a Lynne Ramsay movie called Ratcatcher. I thought about Risky Business a lot. I always thought of this as a female version of Risky Business, by the way of British Kitchen Sink drama, as weird and opaque as that may sound. I think of Christiane F., a great german film about a teenage girl.
CZF: Can you whittle that down? What are your touchstone teen films?
MW: Movies that handle the messiness and confusion of having all those chemicals and thoughts running through your body. High School, for me, and for a lot of people, can be an excruciating experience of mixed messages and lack of boundaries and acting out, trying to find out what your identity is, and all of those movies have always hinted at the sweetness and the pathos of what it means to be 17. It’s such a contradiction because you’re supposed to be freer than you’ve ever been, but I never felt that way when I was 17. I always carried a burden of anxiety and confusion as to where I fit in and what my place was. All those movies I brought up handle that beautifully, I think.
CZF: Are there any clichés of the teen comedy you were trying to avoid?
MW: Yeah. That they mostly star men. The girl is usually a prize at the end of the movie if they’ve done everything right and they can pass their trial by fire and end up with the girl who is waiting there at the end. To me, that is less interesting.
CZF: Let’s talk about the girl. What was the nature of the collaboration with you and Zoey Duetch on the film?
MW: We were lock step in everything. She was my partner in this. She held me accountable and really, we, I was there to guide the principle of it but everything from the production design of her bedroom to her wardrobe to putting things in a way that felt like was the natural way to say things, she’s way closer to being a 17 year old girl than I am, I took very seriously and listened and trusted her instincts so much. You know, her audition tape that she sent in is as good as she is in the movie. She was so in control of that character from our first conversations that I trusted her implicitly.CZF: Did she do much improv—
MW: She was free to put things in any phrasing she wanted to. Whatever felt natural, she was a real collaborator in that character.
CZF: What did it mean for you as a male director telling Erica’s story? What kind of responsibility did you feel?
MW: It a lot of responsibility. It’s a good thing for people, and filmmakers, to constantly put themselves in other people’s narratives, otherwise we’d have a bunch of movies being made about about 34-year old white males trying to make it as a screenwriter or director in Hollywood, and that would singlehandedly kill the movie business. I don’t think anyone wants to see those. For me, surrounding myself with as many powerful and talented women on the crew was something I felt was inarguable. We had almost exclusively female department heads in every facet of the filmmaking process, and I was there for them to hold me accountable. And, I did that because I felt like it gave us the best shot to tell this story as authentically as possible.
CZF: Can you point to one of those women who really shaped the final vision of the film?
MW: Carolina Costa, my cinematographer, was extremely influential in the look and feel and intimacy and femininity of this movie. She was a true partner in this.
Then, Sarah Beth Shapiro, one of our editors. Michelle Thompson, our costume designer, Caroline Goldfarb our onset writer and producer. Trisha Robinson, our production designer and her team. They all a major role in shaping this and creating this and holding me accountable and I feel completely grateful to them.
CZF: I’d like to hear some of your thoughts about the men in the film. It starts with the cop, then you have Adam Scott, the teacher, and then Erica’s stepdad, Tim Heidecker’s character. How do you feel this film investigates the masculine elements of the the story?
MW: I don’t consider them all one entity. I consider them all flawed in different ways, some greater than others, but I don’t lop all the men into one category as I don’t lop all the women into one category. I think Tim Heidecker tries the best he can and I think Adam Scott and Eric Edelstein’s brilliant portrayals of their characters are examples of two people using their position of power for their own gain. And it’s inexcusable, and I don’t think what happens to them or how they go about things is the correct way, but I think everyone is supposed to be seen, not all good not all bad. And though this movie doesn’t necessarily portray grown adult men in the most glorious light, it’s just because they don’t serve this particular story. One of the most heroic figures in this movie is a male, he’s just a younger male, and his name is Luke and he plays her stepbrother.
CZF: It’s interesting to view the way the adult characters differ from the youth. Luke, to me, is the character inhabits the most complicated, tonal, cinematic portrait. Can you talk about how you managed to marry, I think about, trying to hang himself in the garage, scenes devoid of humor that are very serious. How did you mingle that so well with the comedy.
MW: It’s all casting, you know what I mean? Morgan is an incredible actor, and all his scenes feel so real because he’s so good. I was just so lucky to get the cast I had. We all wanted to make the same movie, so, when that is the case, that’s one of the only things that can really derail a movie, even when there’s no money like we had here, we made this for half a million dollars. But if everyone wants to make the same movie you spend way less time dissecting stuff on set and we are all trying to make the same ideas work. Luke is the heart of the movie. He’s the turtle coming out of his shell. And who he is at the beginning of the movie when they pick him up to who he is at the end of the movie, smiling, to me is the great transformation of the movie. Maybe even over Erica’s.
CZF: A lot of the life in movie is in the little quips, the little jokes, the natural moments, do you have a favorite joke, or a favorite line?
MW: No, but those are my favorite parts of the movie too, and again I think that’s a testament to our actors being in the moment and not being afraid to try things that weren’t scripted. I think when you have actors like Adam Scott and Zoey Deutch and Kathryn Hahn and Tim Hiedecker, you have to trust them and let them feel a freedom to try stuff, and I did, and I think it made the movie significantly better. I love when the scenes feel alive and you can tell that they’re just going off and making it their own.
CZF: The little exchanges that come at the end of the scenes, they’re so funny…
MW: That makes me so happy, thank you…
CZF: What was it like directing Tim Hiedecker?
MW: Intimidating. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever been intimidated by an actor. He’s had such a big impact on my sense of humor and the way I’ve consumed comedy and videos and the internet. But he is amazing. If you can do comedy, you can do drama. I think he plays everything so real and good, and that characer had the potential on the page, if it wasn’t handled tonally correctly by a great actor like Tim it could feel a little Ned Flandersy. I think he plays it totally real and I find him an admirable character in some way because he really is limited but he’s trying the best he can. And, it’s just hard for him to communicate. It’s complicated for him because he just met this woman that is way out his league but for some reason she finds him endearing, and yet she comes with this daughter who tortures him. He’s just ill equipped to handle the tough stuff.
CZF: He’s such a singular actor.
MW: He’s amazing.
CZF: I feel like Flower is a movie that is not for everyone but some people are going to really connect to it. What do you hope for this movie? What do you want it to do to audiences?
MW: I hope it moves them in some way. I hope they’re as blown away by Zoey Duetch’s performance as I am. Once you finish your movie it is no longer your thing anymore. Hearing people talk about it has been really exciting and emotional for all of us. The thing I continually come away with is the gravity of Zoey’s performance, coming out of a 21-year old. That excites me the most.
–Christopher Zumski Finke