Indie dramedy embraces Sundance clichés in telling the tale of an unorthodox family.
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I probably agreed to review “Wildflower” (opening exclusively at Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, Calif. before debuting on VOD Tuesday, March 21) because one letter separates it from sharing a title with my favorite Tom Petty record/favorite album of all-time … well, that, and the stacked cast.
Our story focuses on Bea Johnson (played in childhood by Ryan Kiera Armstrong and in adolescence by Kiernan Shipka). She’s the child of intellectually disabled parents Derek (Dash Mihok) and Sharon (relative newcomer Samantha Hyde). Bea’s grandmothers Loretta (Jacki Weaver) and Peg (Jean Smart) have differing ideas about how she should be reared and whether she should’ve been conceived in the first place. Bea’s moneyed Aunt Joy (Alexandra Daddario) and Uncle Ben (Reid Scott) attempted to take custody of her as a child, but ultimately settle for footing her tuition bill at a posh Las Vegas prep school. It’s at this institution that Bea befriends Mia (Kannon), enters into a relationship with wealthy, cancer-surviving new kid Ethan (Charlie Plummer) and is being pressured into applying for college by her guidance counselor Mr. Vasquez (Victor Rasuk … worlds removed from playing pro skater Tony Alva in “Lords of Dogtown” … I guess that’s what almost 20 years does) despite having concerns about abandoning her parents.
“Wildflower” takes two pages out of the Sundance Film Festival playbook by being both a coming of age and dysfunctional family dramedy. As directed by Matt Smukler (making his feature debut after having helmed shorts, a TV special and a documentary about his niece also entitled “Wildflower,” which served as the basis for this film) and scribed by actress-turned-screenwriter Jana Savage, “Wildflower” often has a been there, done that vibe to it and by no means whatsoever reinvents the wheel. In spite of this, the film is well-acted, entertaining, funny and often very moving.
Of the performers I was most impressed by Shipka and Mihok.
I’ve only seen one episode of “Mad Men” (it’s the one where Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) beats up Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) and it was good) and haven’t seen a single episode of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” so I’m largely unfamiliar with Shipka’s work. She makes for a compelling lead here. Shipka’s lovely and imbues the character of Bea with decency and sensitivity, which makes her hugely sympathetic.
Mihok’s an actor I’ve long admired in movies ranging from “Romeo + Juliet” to “The Thin Red Line” to “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” to “Punisher: War Zone” to “Silver Linings Playbook.” His take on Derek is a nuanced one. He never engages with the role in a manner that was joked about and warned against in “Tropic Thunder.” Mihok’s a big dude and cuts an imposing figure especially when juxtaposed against the diminutive Shipka. Derek vacillates between childlike wonder, religious fervor and being an intimidating presence … sometimes within the confines of a single scene. It’s an interesting character and an interesting performance.
I’m not entirely certain “Wildflower” deals with disabled individuals as sensitively as last week’s “Champions” did, but I have no doubt the filmmakers’ hearts were in the right place (even if their heads don’t always follow suit) and at the end of the day that’s what matters most.