“Wildflower” – In full bloom [MOVIE REVIEW]

Reid Scott as “Ben,” Alexandra Daddario as “Joy,” Jean Smart as “Peg,” Charlie Plummer as “Ethan,” Kiernan Shipka as “Bea,” Samantha Hyde as “Sharon,” Dash Mihok as “Derek,” Jacki Weaver as “Loretta,” and Brad Garrett as “Earl.” Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

“Wildflower” is the sort of true story of an intrepid youngster raised by intellectually challenged parents. Peg and Earl are the parents of Sharon, born seriously challenged intellectually but with a joyful, fearless personality ready to go after what she wants. Derek, whose mental growth stopped at age 13 after a traumatic head injury, is what she wants. Unlike Derek’s mother Loretta, who has yet to come to grips with his disability, Peg encourages Sharon’s pursuit of happiness. They marry and to the relative horror of both parents, they soon produce a child, Bambi, named after Sharon’s favorite Disney character. As soon as she was able, Bambi referred to herself as Bea. 

Life in Las Vegas is not easy but you’d never be able to tell from the delight they share in each other, whether living in their van or in the bungalow they eventually call home. Bea, lying in the hospital with her loved ones around her, has suffered an accident that has put her in a coma. But as her extended dysfunctional family hovers, it is Bea’s disembodied voice that narrates her family story for us, much like the device used in “Sunset Boulevard,” except that Bea’s not dead.

Kiernan Shipka as “Bea.” Photo courtesy of
Momentum Pictures.

Bea is an extraordinary girl, the responsible party in a home where mom, with an addiction to slot machines, is never able to bring home a full paycheck from her menial jobs and dad has a hard time holding a job. It’s Bea who gets them going in the morning; who makes sure her mom gets dressed and doesn’t eat any more oreos after she’s brushed her teeth. It’s Bea who gets herself to school and cooks and cleans. Somehow or other, disasters are averted on a daily basis until the morning, at age ten, when she gets into the family truck to retrieve her runaway dog. Mum’s the word when the cops arrive and the truck has mysteriously jumped the curb and crashed into a mailbox. They can’t punish what they can’t find out and Bea’s not saying a word. 

Bea is certainly aware of the unusual circumstances of her home life. Nothing makes it clearer than the summer she spent with her loving and doting aunt and uncle where she sees that it’s supposed to be the parents doling out love and responsibility. Still, she’s committed to her parents and not inclined to stay with her relatives. They do, however, pay her tuition to a fancy private school; even her parents recognize the value of a first rate education.

Bea is exceptional. She’s preternaturally mature with a self confidence that defies her circumstances. Able to face the school queen bee (actually it’s a different “B” word) who ridicules her parents, her dress, and her socioeconomic status, Bea stars on the track team, attracts the cute new boy in class and gets outstanding grades.

Kannon Omachi as “Nia Tanaka” and Kiernan Shipka as “Bea.” Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

But there’s a chink in her armor, and it’s not the coma she’s in. Constantly hounded by her guidance counselor who sees a top tier college in her future, she cannot envision a future for her parents if she leaves. Like Ruby Rossi in “Coda,” Bea is her parent’s connection to the outside world. 

There are no spoilers to give in this outstanding character piece that exhibits growth in everyone along the way. More extraordinary, however, is that this is based on the story of the director’s niece. Matt Smukler has told this story on several occasions, the first being the short film he made with his niece Christina for her college submission. It then evolved into a feature length documentary. It was his screenwriting partner Jenna Savage who pointed out the narrative possibilities for a feature film. They kept the bones of the non-fiction elements and used them to tell the larger story of family, warts and all.

The cast helps enormously. Jean Smart plays Peg, the mother of Sharon, who prefers to see what her daughter can do rather than what she can’t. Jackie Weaver, a true scene stealer with her ever present cigarette, is Loretta, Derek’s mom, who has never accepted Derek for who he is and can’t embrace the exhilaration he shares with Sharon. 

Samantha Hyde, Sharon, in her feature debut, was a real find. On the spectrum, Samantha brings just the right awkward clueless happiness to her character. Her love, fearlessness and total lack of responsibility underscore her performance. Dash Mihok is outstanding as Derek, the other half of this neurodivergent couple whose love of life and their daughter carries him through. 

But it wouldn’t be the story it is without Kiernan Shipka who plays Bea. Even as a disembodied voice narrating her life prior to the accident that put her in the hospital, she is warm, engaging, entertaining, and thoroughly believable as the mature beyond her years young woman who is still haunted by a fundamental anxiety that may put the brakes on a promising future; that is if she comes out of the coma.

If your heartstrings are tugged and your eyes water a bit, it’s all earned. My main question is why any distributor would dump this film in no man’s land (that period between January and April where films go to die). This movie should be seen and seen again.

Opening March 17 at the Laemmle Monica Film Center. On Demand and Digital beginning March 21.


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