Black Flowers (aka Atomic Apocalypse) (2018)

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