At the beginning of Black Flowers (aka Atomic Apocalypse), Kate (Krista DeMille, excellent), her husband Sam (Ron Roggé) and their teen daughter Suzi (Andrea Sweeney Blanco) – keen swimmers all – are enjoying their vacation on a beach when they see the atomic mushroom clouds in the distance. Cut to a year and a half later, and the world has been transformed into a terrifying post-nuclear playground of scavengers, cultists and survivalists. Yet as an injured Sam hands over his gun to Kate with the words, “You’re in charge now – which basically means nothing’s changed,” he is laying out the new terms of the latest feature from English writer/director Martin Gooch (After Death, 2012; The Search For Simon, 2013; The Gatehouse, 2016).
While there have been plenty of post-apocalyptic films, the novelty here is that its protagonist is more soccer mum than warrior of the wasteland, making this picaresque tale of mother and daughter a feminised remix of John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009). Eccentric and effervescent, Kate faces all the usual horrors associated with this subgenre (marauders, cannibals, even a Lotus Eater-like community of directionless utopists), while bringing to them a cheerily remedial maternalism that might just be the salvational grace that this patriarchal world – embodied, in different ways, by the toxically treacherous fellow traveller Joe (Jesús Lloveras) and aimless hedonist DJ Apocalypso (William Mark McCullough) – needs.
“I was born in charge,” says Kate – and she is indeed a natural leader with a strong sense of purpose and the will, in a pinch, to do anything for her loved ones. Her character and presence serve constantly to defamiliarise, even to undermine, the post-apocalyptic subgenre’s tropes. Though faced with constant threat and trauma, Kate has a Dory-like ability that lets her just keep swimming (at least in her dreams), and keep going – with a grin – for her family, no matter how desperate things become. The black flowers of the title are a new mutation that has risen from the ambient radiation – and, all at once resilient and adaptive, dangerous and curative, they are also a symbol for Kate herself, whose perky pluck is a constant antidote to all the surrounding despair.
“Are we not all part of one big family?”, asks the Icon (Domenica Cameron-Scorsese), leader of a group of religious pilgrims. Kate’s retention of family values in a world that has otherwise lost both its geographical and moral compass is what makes Black Flowers such a strange joy, in spite, or perhaps because, of all its tonal dissonances. The dystopia that the film offers is familiar, but we really never have seen a heroine quite like this.
© Anton Bitel