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A terrific cast can only do so much with superficial, maudlin material in the coming-of-age dramedy “Wildflower.”
Kiernan Shipka deftly navigates the film’s sometimes clunky tonal shifts as Bea, a high school senior who’s the child of intellectually disabled parents, Derek (Dash Mihok) and Sharon (autistic actress Samantha Hyde). Shipka is accessible and likable throughout the movie’s many highs, lows, and narrative time jumps, and the veteran “Mad Men” child star always has reliable comic timing.
For starters, Bea (short for Bambi, her mom’s favorite character) is lying in a hospital bed in a coma, narrating the film in sardonic tones: “I’ve always felt trapped in this family, but this is a whole other level,” she jokes off the top as frantic relatives surround her, fretting about her fate. That can be amusing, especially when she contradicts other characters in a clipped, dry way reminiscent of Ron Howard’s voiceover work on “Arrested Development.” Bea has been in some sort of accident, and the flashback structure fills in who she is and, eventually, solves the mystery of how she got there. But too often, the script from director Matt Smukler (in his feature film debut) and Jana Savage calls on Bea to spell out everything in her narration, including feelings and instincts we can clearly surmise for ourselves from what’s happening on screen.
She takes us back to the beginning, showing us how her parents met, quickly fell in love, married, and gave birth to her, despite the concern and disapproval of their own parents. Sharon’s mother and father (Jean Smart and Brad Garrett) bicker over whether she’s equipped to care for a baby. “Wildflower” is based on a true story, but it offers a simplistic perspective of Sharon, depicting her almost entirely in childlike terms. She’s more of a cheery idea than a fully-formed character, flitting about, getting easily distracted, and finding joy in the little things in life. Derek, meanwhile, is an agreeable goofball after suffering a serious brain injury in his youth, and there isn’t much more to him than that. And Jacki Weaver, as Derek’s mom, is too much of a narcissist to worry about anyone else’s future; the first time we see her, she’s hamming it up big time, cluelessly smoking in Bea’s hospital room for wacky laughs. Smart finds the grace notes in her beleaguered, no-nonsense grandmother character. Garrett barely gets anything to do.
In flashbacks to Bea’s childhood, the talented Ryan Kiera Armstrong takes over the role, revealing the character’s strong-willed, independent streak even at age 10. The only child must care for herself and her parents at this point, as we see from their cluttered Las Vegas home. A scene in which she bribes her mom with Oreos to make her get ready for work feels so specific and sad, it must have come from real life. But a brief stay with her affluent aunt and uncle (Alexandra Daddario and Reid Scott), who helicopter parent their overly cautious, overscheduled twin sons, doesn’t seem a preferable existence, either, even though it would be more comfortable. (Armstrong, the young star of last year’s “Firestarter” and the recent Nicolas Cage Western “The Old Way,” is always authentic, natural, and too often better than the material she gets to work with.)
Shipka assumes the role of Bea as a teenager: the self-possessed misfit who doesn’t care what the popular girls think of her. Charlie Plummer brings some welcome subtlety as Ethan, the hot, new boy in school who takes an instant liking to her and becomes her first love. They recognize something in each other that’s different—trauma has forced them both to grow up too fast, and this section of “Wildflower” that focuses on their romance is its strongest. Like “CODA,” Bea is a smart young woman with a bright future who’s reluctant to go off to college because she’s so insistent that her parents couldn’t possibly function without her. That conflict provides some legitimate stakes.
But “Wildflower” tries to cover so much in terms of time and emotion that it feels rushed, and the big, tear-jerker moments it seeks never come close to blossoming.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms on March 21st.
Kiernan Shipka as Bea Johnson
Alexandra Daddario as Joy
Ryan Kiera Armstrong as Young Bea