Max Winkler's outrageous Flower brings bite to the Vancouver Just For Laughs Film Festival

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      If the best comedy has teeth, then you’d be hard-pressed to find a recent movie more viciously toothy—or uproariously funny—than Max Winkler’s Flower. The film starts with 17-year-old Erica (Zoey Deutch) blackmailing a cop after giving him head in a squad car. “If we ever find you trolling for underage pussy again,” she tells him, flanked by two friends who secretly caught the encounter on an iPhone, “I swear to God we upload this shit to the cloud.”

      For the next 90 minutes, the film remains more or less unbridled in its button-pushing. Erica keeps a ledger detailing the marks in her criminal sexual enterprise, along with meticulous drawings of all the cock she’s known, blown, and owned. Gradually she’s drawn into a plot to entrap a possible kiddie molester played by Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott—a caper that goes catastrophically wrong, and not just because Erica finds herself so attracted to the guy. All of this takes place within the lovingly shot, sun-kissed vistas of Southern California.

      “I think the whole reason you do this is to take risks and chances and try stuff,” says director Winkler, calling the Straight from Los Angeles. “But it wasn’t like filmmakers and crew were sitting around going ‘How can we make this provocative?’ It was really just about telling this girl’s story as honestly and authentically as possible.”

      The filmmaker, who adapted novelist Alex McAulay’s screenplay with producer Matt Spicer, isn’t even sure that we can call Flower a comedy—“Although I’m glad that you laughed!” he adds. He refers to the film as a “regaining of innocence” (as opposed to “loss of innocence”) story. Whatever it is, Vancouverites will get a sneak peak at Winkler’s riotous film when it screens with the filmmaker in attendance at the Annex next Friday (March 9), as part of the inaugural Vancouver Just For Laughs Film Festival.

      What’s inarguable is that Winkler assembled an incredible cast of comic actors for the low-low-budget film. Kathryn Hahn, Dylan Gelula, and Tim Heidecker are among those lending their support to Deutch’s star-making turn as Erica, inside a film that makes a meal of its wild tonal shifts and unpredictable character arcs. The director mentions Ratcatcher and Fish Tank as Flower’s spiritual antecedents, but also Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret and the universe of '80s film teendom stretching between Over the Edge and anything by John Hughes.

      A key scene set inside a restaurant, meanwhile, has the queasily funny/grotesque feel of a Daniel Clowes panel, with Erica forced into a meeting with her sweat-drenched, Oxy-addicted, panic-attack-stricken new stepbrother, Luke (Joey Morgan). (The disastrous dinner ends with Erica offering him a blowjob.)

       “I shot the whole movie in the San Fernando Valley, which is where I was raised,” says Winkler, who—yes, that’s right—followed his father Henry into show business. “That was a restaurant that I spent a lot of my childhood in: the Smokehouse. It’s kind of this iconic Burbank institution, and it just brought back all these visceral memories of tense family dinners I used to have there.”

      The personal touches largely end there, mind you. Winkler is at pains to acknowledge that Flower blossomed thanks to a heavier-than-usual female presence on both sides of the camera. When editor Sarah Beth Shapiro showed an early cut to veteran editor (and mentor) Zach Staenberg, he assumed that Flower was directed by a woman.

      “That was probably my greatest honour in the whole movie, because I was really trying to eliminate the male gaze as much as possible,” says Winkler. “I just wanted to be kept honest. I always wanted someone to just say ‘You’re coming at this from a 32-year-old male perspective, this is how I would say it, this is what I would wear.’”

      Not surprisingly, given her performance, Deutch capitalized on the opportunity—also presented to Gelula and costar Maya Eshet—to handle her own wardrobe, set decoration, and dialogue. Winkler's ears were always open to his lead's suggestions. “When you’re hearing it from someone who’s a lot closer to being a 17-year-old girl than I am, you should take those things really seriously,” he says.” And she was right about all her stuff.”