A stellar cast lends gravitas to “Wildflower”, a heartwarming coming-of-age tale that aims to give voice to an underrepresented group.
Despite having come of age ages ago, I readily admit to being a sucker for coming-of-age stories. Sure, they can be predictable and tend to retread similar story beats. And, yeah, they’re often designed to manipulate your emotions in the most obvious ways. But they also tend to be heartwarming, funny, and emotionally engaging. And sometimes, that’s just the secret sauce you need — a necessary tonic for a steady consumption of tense drama and horror (both onscreen and off).
If that’s not your bag, you can exit this train station now. You won’t like where we’re going. But if you, like me, often crave a feel-good palate cleanser, join me on the journey that is Wildflower. I think you’ll be glad you did.
Wildflower begins in a most unusual way, with our protagonist, high-school senior Bea (short for Bambi, played by Kiernan Shipka of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina notoriety), lying in a hospital bed in a coma following some terrible yet unexplained accident.
At her bedside are her feuding grandmothers, the chain-smoking and acerbic Loretta (Jacki Weaver) and the beleaguered Peg (Jean Smart), along with her high-strung aunt and uncle, Joy (Alexandra Daddario) and Ben (Reid Scott).
At the center of the storm brewing among her bickering family are Bea’s calm and collected parents, Sharon (Samantha Hyde — a neurodivergent actress in her first feature film) and Derek (Dash Mihok).
We soon discover that Sharon and Derek are intellectually disabled, a fact that has loomed large over Bea’s very non-traditional and often challenging childhood.
Her mother had a mental disability since birth, and her father suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him permanently altered after being hit by a drunk driver at age 12.
Bea begins to narrate the film in voiceover, with sardonic wit, tracing the journey of her young life from the moment her parents met, to her birth and childhood, up through her recent teenage years. This is intercut with interviews of family members conducted by social worker Mary (Erika Alexander), who has been tasked with investigating the circumstances of Bea’s accident and ensuring her continued safety.
We watch Sharon’s parents, Peg and Earl (Brad Garrett), along with Derek’s parents, Loretta and Hal (Chris Mulkey), ponder and debate the ramifications of the whirlwind courtship between their neurodivergent children. There’s some horrifying talk about whether Sharon and Derek should be allowed to have children and how to potentially prevent it.
Nevertheless, Sharon does indeed end up pregnant, giving birth to a baby girl she names Bambi after her favorite cartoon character. Tensions arise between Peg and Earl over how involved the grandparents should be in helping raise Bea, eventually causing an irreparable strain on the marriage.
Eventually, Sharon and Derek move out of the home of a devastated Peg to strike out on their own and raise their daughter their way, despite serious concerns from their family that they aren’t equipped to do so.
Next, we meet Young Bea (played by outstanding newcomer Ryan Kiera Armstrong).
Bea has become a whip-smart, strong-willed, independent young girl capable of taking care of herself as well as her parents, even as a precocious ten-year-old.
At this tender age, her father tries to teach her to drive, arguing that she may have to help in an emergency. It’s a funny scene underscored by a tender sadness, as it illustrates just how fast Bea is forced to grow up and be responsible well beyond her years.
After her driving lesson, an overconfident Bea takes the car to retrieve her missing dog after Sharon accidentally lets it escape. She crashes the car and is briefly sent to live with her well-to-do aunt and uncle and their twin boys.
The heavily structured, “involved to the point of overbearing” parental stylings of Joy and Ben are shown in sharp contrast to that of Sharon and Derek’s free-spirited, mostly hands-off approach. While Joy and Ben can certainly offer Bea a safer, more comfortable existence, the young girl already seems far too self-reliant and individualistic to adapt to such a rigid and stifling environment.
Though Sharon’s sister Joy and her husband Ben lobby to raise Bea, eager for her to have a “normal” life, Sharon insists upon her return. So, Ben and Joy do the next best thing, kicking in the tuition so Bea can attend a prestigious private school.
At this point, about 30 minutes in, Shipka assumes the role of Bea as a teenager in high school, and this is where the film really comes into its own.
Though Bea is often singled out and bullied by the popular girls as a result of her disabled parents and much lower income status, having to grow up so fast has given her advanced maturity and self-assuredness for her age, and she handles uncomfortable social situations with sharp wit and aplomb.
By her side is her endearing best friend, Nia (Kannon). Later, she also catches the eye of the handsome new kid in school, Ethan (Charlie Plummer), who survived testicular cancer and has recently been given a new lease on life.
Though she has to work twice as hard as everyone else — balancing her studies with after-school jobs and keeping things smoothly at home — Bea excels academically and athletically at school. She seems uniquely equipped to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Because of her academic excellence and stellar potential, a caring guidance counselor (Victor Rasuk) continuously pushes Bea to complete her college applications, a task she repeatedly puts off until finally confessing that she has no intention of going to college because she can’t possibly leave her parents.
This powerful dilemma provides the most significant conflict of the film, forcing Bea to choose between her responsibility to others and the role of caregiver, the only thing she’s known her entire life, and her responsibility to herself and her future — a future she hasn’t even allowed herself to consider having.
Soon, the relationship between Bea and Ethan blossoms. And, for the first time, Bea allows herself the luxury of being a normal teen, temporarily forgetting about her weighty responsibilities and seriously contemplating college at UCLA.
The chemistry between Shipka and Plummer is strong, and the romantic storyline is sweet and engaging.
As you might expect, Bea’s idyllic break from her difficult reality is short-lived, and the consequences of her fling as a “normal” girl come to a head.
This results in conflict in every aspect of Bea’s life, including her relationship with Ethan and her parents. Ultimately, Bea is forced to confront her perception of herself, her parents, and her place in the world.
As we reach the climax of the film, the timeline catches up to the present, and we finally learn what happened to cause Bea’s coma, a mystery that kept me on edge until its revelation.
It culminates in an emotional and cathartic ending that may be a bit too schmaltzy and formulaic for some, but which I found quite satisfying.
I especially loved seeing two screen legends, Smart and Weaver, get a chance to showcase their considerable acting chops in a funny, touching, and impassioned bathroom showdown late in the film.
Beyond the interesting and refreshingly unique premise — made all the more compelling by the fact that it’s based on a true story inspired by director Matt Smukler’s niece — the majority of the film plays out like a pretty typical coming-of-age dramedy.
But that’s not to say it’s nothing special.
As I mentioned earlier, I love a good journey of self-discovery and a film that follows the trials and tribulations of young adulthood. And Wildflower really shines in this regard, buoyed in large part by a convincing and showstopping performance from Shipka. Even amidst a cast of seasoned and accomplished actors, Shipka is the film’s brightest star.
That’s saying something, given just how truly excellent everyone else is.
It comes as no surprise that Smart delivers a layered and subtly heartbreaking performance that stands out despite sadly limited screen time. Her scenes with Garrett are intense, raw, and riveting — showcasing two undisputed masters of their craft.
Though the film has received some criticism for its portrayal of Bea’s neurodivergent parents, I thought both Hyde and Mihok were extraordinary, breathing life into complicated and misunderstood characters.
Portrayed as two people with a genuine zest for life and an unwavering love for each other and their child, they exude warmth and the kind of untainted optimism that is easy to dismiss as naïve but feels remarkably refreshing in a sea of despair and disappointment.
I love seeing underrepresented characters onscreen and stories told from a unique perspective rarely explored.
Of course, featuring such characters is a risk for any filmmaker, and it’s a fine line between representation and exploitation.
I thought Smukler did a commendable job walking that line, and I never once took issue with his thoughtful portrayal of intellectually disabled individuals.
I’ve heard some criticize the infantilizing of Sharon and Derek, referring to the film as “inspiration porn” designed to highlight the non-disabled protagonist’s journey. I want to be transparent and highlight this criticism, as it’s certainly a discussion that’s important to have. We need to thoughtfully examine how we represent diversity in our films and media.
While I thought Smukler and his co-writer Jana Savage handled the material with care, giving the characters and story a feeling of authenticity, I won’t pretend to have more valid insight than those with a far more personal connection to the material — including those who grew up with neurodivergent parents or relatives or who are neurodivergent themselves.
Your interpretation of that representation will certainly affect your perception and enjoyment of the film. In the end, however, I think there’s enough sweetness and bloom in Wildflower to win most audiences over.
It inevitably suffered from comparisons to Apple TV+’s Oscar-winning feature CODA about a child raised by deaf parents. That’s unfortunate because CODA casts a pretty big shadow. But Wildflower deserves to be viewed in its own light.
Focusing far more on humor and pulling at the heartstrings, Wildflower never really raises the stakes too high or leans too hard into dramatic tension. It plays more like a spirited slice-of-life indie effort designed to warm your insides and give you the feels.
Undoubtedly that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who dig that, you’ll almost certainly dig this.