Movie Review: Growing up with “Special” parents, a concerned but sardonic “Wildflower”

You’ve got to be brave when you include “special needs” characters in your movie. There are sensibilities, issues of compassion, prejudice in a “pre-judging” sense and even nomenclature that can get you into trouble.

I hesitate to even mention movies that might encompass that term, because characterization is everything these days. “Rain Man” and “Benny & Joon” were born before “on the spectrum” gave filmmakers and actors and those reviewing their works wriggle room.

The Oscar-winning “CODA” wasn’t about mental disabilities, but the deaf parents depicted in that had “special needs,” at least in the eyes of their co-dependent daughter, whom they lean on to make their lives work.

It’s hard to consider a “Poppy” or a “Champions,” to name two titles from this still-new year, without implied judgement in how they’re depicting and “mainstreaming” characters in their fictional stories, and whether it is “realistic” or responsible to simplistically insist — as “feel good movies” do — that they should be.

“Wildflower” does a fine job of walking that tightrope. “Inspired by a true story,” screenwriter Jana Savage and director Matt Smuckler aren’t shy about the pitfalls and perils associated with two adults of childishly-diminished capacities marrying and having a baby that the most sensible members of both their families see as a burden they’re all going to have to share, because the parents aren’t going to be all that parental.

“Wildflower” is closer to “CODA” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” than “Benny & Joon,” as there are responsible adults who shrug off the idea of Sharon (newcomer Samantha Hyde) and Derek (Dash Mihok) — one with a genetic condition since birth, the other a survivor of a brain injury at 12 — “dating.” And then there’s everybody else.

A “running gag,” if you can call it that, is this person or that one blurting out, at the appropriate time, “I KNEW something like this would happen!”

The film opens with teenaged Bea (Kiernan Shipka of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”) being gurneyed into the emergency room. She’s had an accident. She’s in a coma. Her family gathers, her parents, the permissive but always-concerned Jewish grandmother (Jean Smart, terrific) and the chain-smoking and unfiltered Vegas granny (Jacki Weaver at her Jackiest) and Bea’s practical aunt (Alexandra Daddario) and doting uncle (Reid Scott).

They remember the tortured path that brought them to this point, with every “I KNEW something like this would happen” along the way. The most under-booked social worker (Erika Alexander) in history questions them all, even Bea’s boyfriend (Charlie Plummer) and her bestie (Kannon Omachi). Flashbacks, narrated by Bea, tell the long story of how she got to that fateful night.

It’s a dramedy, so we’re going to be treated to sweet moments, laugh-out-loud blunders, “inappropriate” talk and manners and some genuine cringes all through the years.

What emerges is a childhood of terrible decision-making by “adults” who were not “21 INSIDE” when they met and fell in love. They haven’t matured into parents who can put their daughter’s needs ahead of their impulses and can’t focus on simple things like shopping, cooking and feeding themselves, dealing with money or helping their child settle into school on a path that will lead to her success.

If the house is a mess, it’s because little Bea (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) hasn’t gotten around to cleaning it. If Mom isn’t ready for work, it’s because Bea hasn’t made her get dressed and led her to the bus stop.

“Did you brush your teeth?”

If Dad’s impatient with driving lessons for her “in case something bad happens,” it might be because he’s not a good teacher. And that he’s doing this when Bea is TEN.

The viewer might be amused or appalled at all this. Bea, who prefers that name because her folks named her “Bambi,” just rolls with it, a sardonic commenter on her life and hard times, her massive responsibilities and the way all the petty problems of high school are over-shadowed by this life-limiting burden she carries, mostly without telling anyone.

I like the way the script introduces the “R-word,” which little Bea hears someone call her mother at school.

“Your mom’s not retarded,” her Dad insists. “Are you?” his kid wants to know?

Dad, like his brassy, blowsy mother, is into Jesus. And he likes that term “special.” That’s why he declines Mom’s “disability” payments at one point.

Bea grew up just as cluelessly inconsiderate of how dangerous the world can be as her caregivers. Of course she jumps in the aunt’s pool. Swimming? Who learned how to do that?

You can see why Bea chooses to give up a beloved dog. Even at 10, she knows “I can’t take care of him AND my Mom.”

That could easily have been a heartbreaking moment in a movie that shies away from those. A touching scene or two in the third act is all the emotion “Wildflower” really allows. The script, to a fault, leans more on the high school smart-ass eschewing “normal” because that’s what life has denied her, but grabbing the first “normal” thing — a boyfriend — that comes along, just to see what it’s like.

There’s a distance in the writing and in Shipka’s performance that hampers the film and robs it of some of the heart that should have been its birthright. Incessant voice-over narration, the lazy screenwriter’s crutch, is a big part of that.

So’s the tone. This is a serious subject with some seriously silly things to present, observe and laugh out loud about. The movie feels like any other sensitive, smarter-than-seventeen but with BIG problems high school comedy, with “Charlie Bartlett” leaping to mind more than once.

Gullible Mom can’t even make change, so sure she’ll buy us beer and hard seltzer. Dad’s short attention span and self-absorption mean there’s no high school track meet he won’t skip to go something that’s “fun” to him.

Misgivings aside, I did enjoy the characters, laugh a lot at the right moments and wince at the appropriate times. Even when it strays away from its core messaging, “Wildflower” never steps on a mine. And when you’re working your way through a minefield, you call that a win every time.

Rating:  R for some language, teen drinking and a sexual reference Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Dash Mihok, Jacki Weaver, Charlie Plummer, Alexandra Daddario, Reid Scott, Erika Alexander, Samantha Hyde, Brad Garrett and Jean Smart. Credits: Directed by Matt Smuckler, scripted by Jana Savage. A Momentum/eOne release.

Running time: 1:46


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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