Like a dutiful eldest child, Matt Smukler’s debut feature, Wildflower, adheres to the conventions of its genre. The high-spirited coming-of-age story, which follows Bea, a plainspoken teenager navigating life with neurodivergent parents, has the tumultuous high-school drama, the cheeky romance with a bashful love interest, the fight with the spunky best friend and the undulating moods of wonky relatives in desperate need of filters. These requisite beats are fulfilled by a gallery of distinctive characters. Wildflower, inspired by Smukler’s family, might not be a radical departure from films of its type, but it does offer buoyant performances from both fresh and familiar faces.
Kiernan Shipka (of Mad Men and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) leads an endearing troupe of actors with her animated portrayal of Bea. We meet her character as she lies comatose in a hospital bed, surrounded by worried family members. How she ended up there is a question that drives Smukler’s boisterous bildungsroman, which, via flashbacks, takes us through Bea’s life from childhood to the recent past, attempting to piece together the moments before her hospitalization. These jaunts down memory lane are narrated by Bea’s omniscient subconscious in voiceover.
The Bottom Line
A jam-packed but warmhearted debut.
Before it turns to the past, Wildflower offers a glimpse of Bea’s intra-family relations, the percolating resentments, disjointed communication style and general chaos that reigns. Her feuding grandmothers Loretta (a delightfully acerbic Jacki Weaver) and Peg (an equally sharp-edged Jean Smart) won’t stop sniping at each other. In the background of their bickering are Bea’s neurotic aunt Joy (Alexandra Daddario) and her equally anxious husband, Ben (Reid Scott), begging the family to stay positive. In comparison to the rest of the clan, Bea’s parents, Sharon (Samantha Hyde) and Derek (Dash Mihok), are calm and collected, maintaining a steady faith that their daughter will wake up.
Bea (short for Bambi, Sharon’s favorite cartoon character) grew up hearing other adults describe her parents as “special,” a euphemism, she later realized, for neurodivergent. She recounts how Sharon and Derek met, the rush of their marriage and the thrill of her birth. Although Bea’s parents were never insecure about their ability to pursue their goals (professional and romantic), everyone else was and made that clear. Peg and Earl (Everybody Loves Raymond’s Brad Garrett), Sharon’s parents, struggle to trust their daughter to make her own decisions. Loretta, Derek’s mother, harbors animus for Sharon’s family but seems less fazed. There is an unacknowledged but suffocating assumption that the new parents simply can’t do it.
But Sharon and Derek are a determined duo. They move out of their respective parents’ homes in Van Nuys, California, and start out on their own with Bea in Las Vegas. Like Sian Heder’s CODA, Wildflower refracts the experiences of its disabled characters through a child turned caretaker. Although there are portrayals of underrepresented experiences, the film prioritizes Bea’s perspective and our understanding of neurodivergence is filtered through her neurotypical lens. Yet whereas CODA stayed in straightforward sentimental territory, Wildflower is looser and more self-aware.
The early years of Bea’s life are jam-packed with adventure and freedom. Her first real home is in a mobile community, where Sharon and Derek make friends with people who help babysit. Eventually, they save enough money to relocate to the suburbs, a move that initiates the friction between Bea and her parents. Exposure to life outside of her immediate family shifts Bea’s understanding and lowers her tolerance for Sharon and Derek. She reads their laid-back attitude as clumsy and finds their carefree approach to life frustrating. Ryan Kiera Armstrong is assured as young Bea: There is a quiet confidence in her movements, which accurately reflect a child’s growing indignation at her parents.
After a driving lesson gone wrong and a visit from a social worker, Bea is sent to live with her aunt Joy and Ben. Although the couple, who have two sons of their own, teach Bea skills she’s missed out on — swimming, for example — and introduce her to different experiences, their neuroticism annoys her. The arrangement is short-lived.
Wildflower fast forwards to Bea’s senior year, when she is hawking school raffle tickets on the strip with her best friend Mia (Kannon) in hopes of winning a free trip to Disney. We don’t get to see the years between Bea’s return and this recent past, but it’s clear from her attitude that she has a renewed appreciation for and understanding of her parents.
Wildflower covers so much ground before getting to the main action that parts of the introduction can’t help but feel like throat-clearing. The film gains its footing once it settles into Bea’s recent past, chronicling her budding romance with the new boy at school, Ethan (Charlie Plummer); a rocky fight with Mia; her guidance counselor’s insistence that she apply to college; and a petty feud with their high school’s resident mean girl.
Hovering in the background of these interactions is Bea’s broader struggle: overcoming her condescending relationship to her parents and, by extension, everyone around her. When Smukler focuses on this tension, Wildflower’s core characters (Bea, Sharon and Derek) gain an exciting sharpness and dimension. It’s during those scenes that Shipka, Hyde and Mihok stretch beyond beleaguered archetypes, interacting with each other instead of clichés.
Because what’s ultimately at stake is how Bea relates to her parents. When she starts to see them in the same light as the rest of the world, she overcompensates by turning herself into a caretaker. That unforced responsibility resurfaces childhood resentments and reveals hard-to-swallow truths. The film culminates in a tumultuous blow-up, but it’s no spoiler to say that relationships are repaired, amends made and Bea learns some valuable lessons along the way.