Review: Clunky Family Drama Wildflower Benefits from Kiernan Shipka’s Youthful Talent

From director Matt Smukler comes an unusual coming-of-age drama about a teenage girl named Bea Johnson (real first name: Bambi, played by Kiernan Shipka), who opens the film in a coma, surrounded by both sides of her family. A social worker comes in to investigate the circumstances of her accident by interviewing her friends and family members, and through this process, we uncover Bea’s life story, most of which is fraught with an anxiety that is tearing her apart. Bea’s story begins with her parents (Dash Mibok and Samantha Hyde), both of whom are intellectually challenged. They fall in love, get married quickly, and move into their own place, despite barely being able to take care of each other.

Mibok’s mother (Jacki Weaver) is a smoking, drinking, somewhat bigoted piece of work of the white trash variety, while Hyde’s parents (Brad Garrett and Jean Smart) are more sophisticated but no less judgmental. Both sets of parents encourage the relationship to a point, but all agree they should not have kids, which of course leads to Hyde giving birth immediately. To avoid any type of bad parenting claims against the new parents, Hyde’s sister (Alexandra Daddario) and brother-in-law (Reid Scott) raise young Bea just until she’s old enough to look after herself to a degree, which means that at a certain point, Bea is raising herself before she’s even a teenager. As a result, she grows up a smart, self-sufficient, independent young woman who sometimes resents her situation, but rarely seems genuinely bitter about it.

She makes friends amongst the outcasts, including her best friend Esther (Chloe Rose Robertson) and even a boyfriend (Charlie Plummer), who had testicular cancer at a fairly young age and is grateful every day that he survived the ordeal. Wildflower isn’t exactly a plot-heavy work, but it is a successful character study of an extended family who all rally around perhaps its most capable and reliable member, who is presently in a coma with no prognosis for recovery. Perhaps the only part of Bea’s story that resembles traditional drama is her overwhelming fear that if she leaves for college, her parents won’t be able to take care of themselves. It’s clear this concern haunts her sleeping and waking moments, and it keeps her from applying to schools, not for fear she won’t get in, but for fear she will and then will have to make this impossible choice.

I haven’t seen Shipka in anything she’s done since playing Don Draper’s daughter in “Mad Men,” but based on this film alone, she’s become a genuinely capable and accomplished actor. Her comfort level with the sometimes-clunky material is impressive, and she takes control of this movie with strength and a sense of understanding that is noticeable and holds great promise for what she does moving forward. The rest of Wildflower is hit and miss at best, but Shipka elevates the material to such a degree that the film feels better than it probably is. Consider that the mildest of recommendations.

The film is now playing in a limited theatrical release and is available via VOD.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.