Kiernan Shipka has a star-making turn in this quirky dramedy in the mold of "Little Miss Sunshine" about a teen trying to grow beyond her family and responsibilities.
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It’s not often you’re watching a movie, see a young performer you’re not familiar with and think, “Wow… THAT’S a star.”
Offhand, I can only recall a handful of these instances: River Phoenix in “Stand By Me,” Winona Ryder in “Heathers,” Anne Hathaway in “The Princess Diaries.” I’m adding Kiernan Shipka to the list.
After a busy career as a child and teen actor on TV and streaming shows, she stars in “Wildflower,” a quirky dramedy about a teen girl trying to grow beyond the responsibilities of her family, especially two parents with intellectual disabilities. It’s very much in the mold of films like “Little Miss Sunshine,” family-centered dramas with a sprawling cast of characters ranging from weird to winsome.
If at times the film tries a little too hard to spread the cheer among an unwieldy sized cast, then Shipka brings things back to center with a performance that’s somehow both acerbic and empathetic. Screenwriter Jana Savage based the story on her real-life niece and sister; Matt Smukler directs after previously making a documentary about the family of the same title.
Shipka plays Bea, a high school senior in Las Vegas. She’s smart, hard-working and constantly put-upon. She is, in essence, the only true adult in her household and takes care of her parents much more then they do her. To boot, she’s poor and unpopular amidst a school full of rich kids, and her only friend is Nia (Kannon Omachi), a fellow nerdy outcast.
Her parents are loving and full of joy, but also have the mentalities of children younger than her. Here dad, Derek (Dash Mihok), was involved in a car accident as a child that left him with brain damage, while mom Sharon (Samantha Hyde) was born with developmental delays.
They met and impulsively married as youngsters, which came as a shock to their parents. Jean Smart and Brad Garrett play Sharon’s parents, and Jacki Weaver and Chris Mulkey play Derek’s. There’s a lot of rote in-law sniping, especially between the women, as Smart’s character is an upright sort while Weaver is flamboyant and boozy.
Alexandra Daddario plays Joy, Sharon’s older sister and a stand-in for screenwriter Savage. She and her husband, Ben (Reid Scott), took Bea into their home for awhile when she was a kid. (Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays young Bea.)
Charlie Plummer plays Ethan, a sweetly dim fellow who sidesteps into becoming Bea’s boyfriend. His backstory is that he had testicular cancer as a child and lives in fear it’ll return. They have nice chemistry as two young, damaged people embracing first love thankfully but with a sense of realism.
Rounding out the cast are Chloe Rose Robertson as Esther, the snobby girl who bullies Bea at school; Victor Rasuk as Mr. Vasquez, the rare movie school counselor who’s actually committed and good at his job, pushing Bea to apply to colleges; and Erika Alexander as Mary, a social worker assigned to Bea’s case.
If that sounds like a lot of characters to keep track of, that’s because it is. The movie would have been well-served by paring down the cast, as it often feels like the story struggles to give each of the bigger-name actors their ‘moments.’ Garrett, after a few good scenes in the first 10 minutes, disappears until the end of the film.
The framing device is that Bea was involved in some kind of accident of her own and is currently in a coma. She narrates the story as ongoing flashbacks to her life as her family hovers over her in the hospital.
Bea feels a lot of resentment about having to take care of her parents, who can’t even get their medication right or cook and clean in the house. They’re more like willful teenagers than she is, in a lot of ways. She also harbors guilt about wanting to be rid of the responsibility, which is why she hesitates about leaving for college.
The portrayal of a ‘normal’ kid with intellectually challenged parents is heartfelt, but will probably strike some people as problematic. Bea sometimes will take advantage of her situation, like getting her mom to buy them booze for a party. At one point she deliberately shocks her parents, who have a simplistic sort of devotion to their Christian faith, by claiming she’s a lesbian, just to get a laugh.
What’s really wonderful about Shipka’s performance is that Bea is not some sweet, innocent naïf. She’s got brains and ambition and a caustic sense of humor she’s not afraid to uncork, especially when she feels like others are looking down at her. Despite this, her Bea has an innate likableness that’s hard to deny — authentic and real.
“Wildflower” made a splash on the film festival circuit last year but didn’t get much of a theatrical release. If there’s anything right in Hollywood, Kiernan Shipka will go on to be in a lot of bigger pictures — and you can say you saw her breakout.
“Wildflower” is currently available for rental on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV and other streaming services.