Wildflower (2022)

At the beginning of Matt Smukler’s Wildflower, and for much of its duration, 17-year-old Bea Johnson (Kiernan Shipka) is in a coma. As her extended family – for the first time in ages – assembles around her hospital bed in Las Vegas and argues – not for the first time – about her fate, two narrative devices are introduced which allow us ever so gradually to reconstruct what has led her to be here, and what are the cruces and crisis points in her adolescent life. 

The first of these devices is Bea’s own sassy voice-over, delivered by a brain that has suffered trauma  and is itself – like the viewer – struggling to piece events together and remember what brought about her accident. “Maybe I should try retracing my steps,” she says, “but where do you start when the thing that you lost is your last memory?” – and as the sound of a baby is heard crying, she adds, “Oh, guess we’re starting way back” and, Tristram Shandy-like, unfolds a life story that goes back to a time even before her own birth with the first meeting of her parents, Sharon (Samantha Brooke Hyde) and Derek (Dash Mihok), who both have intellectual disabilities, and whose story is key to hers. 

The second framing device is provided by Mary (Erika Alexander) from child and family services, who had met Bea seven years earlier and who is now tasked with interviewing the teenager’s relatives and friends at the hospital in an attempt to determine what has happened and if intervention is required. What ensues has all the markers of an indie coming-of-age story. There are the high-school scenes including the best friend (Kannon Omachi), the first boyfriend (Charlie Plummer) and the mean girl (Chloe Rose Robertson), as misfit Bea negotiates her way through a difficult adolescence and ‘class’ politics (while Bea’s school is private and its pupils privileged, her homelife is firmly proletarian). There is a crazily mismatched family including one grandmother (Jean Smart) who is an uptight Jew, the other (Jacki Weaver) who is a chain-smoking, flask-swigging Catholic, and an aunt (Alexandra Daddario) and uncle (Reid Scott) who are neurotic and sensitive, and whose own young twin sons are brought up under a regime of overprotective strictures and regular therapy.

This contrasts greatly with Bea’s own upbringing. Unusually free, ‘feral’ even, in the chaos of the Johnson home, coarse, cursing Bea (played as a young child by Ryan Kiera Armstrong) had an independence thrust upon her for which she was not quite old enough – and now that she is older, and attends an élite high school at her aunt’s insistence and expense, Bea is as much parent as daughter to Sharon and Derek, ensuring that their bills get paid, that the house is cleaned, that there is dinner on the table and that their various pills are taken on time, while also maintaining her top grades at school and working part-time at the local community pool. Bea is under a lot of pressure, and when questions are raised, as they have been regularly since before she was born, regarding the best future for Sharon, Derek and Bea herself, the young woman comes apart.

Like Sian Heder’s CODA (2021), Wildflower concerns a teenaged girl struggling to find her own path while living with disabled parents, although it also subtly suggests that Bea uses them as her own crutch as she faces – and avoids – difficult decisions. The film’s focus is very much on Bea, but Sharon and Derek are always there, laughing and loving and exhibiting more agency than Bea has been willing to acknowledge. They may at times step out of line, behave irresponsibly, exhibit flaws and act against their own interests, but so does everyone else – very much including Bea – in a film that celebrates humanity warts and all. Now that Bea has her own brain injury, everything is brought literally to a head, as her friends and family on the outside, and she on the inside, all take score and reconcile themselves to a life which, while certainly dysfunctional, might not after all be as bad as it seems – in a family that, for all its problems, the social worker Mary readily concedes is by no means the weirdest that she has seen.

Text at the beginning of Wildflower reveals that it is “inspired by true events”. Indeed, this is a story that Smukler himself has told once before in a documentary from 2020, also called Wildflower, about the young Christina Stahler who has to grow up while raising her own disabled parents. Made two years later, this second version of the story may be fictionalised and dramatised, with the names of all its key personnel changed, but it is nonetheless based on the actual family of its screenwriter Jana Savage, who is the aunt (played by Daddario in the film) of Christina Stahler (the real ‘Bea’) and the sister of Sheila Stahler (the real ‘Sharon’). 

So this is a personal, heartfelt biopic – but it is also a funny and snarky rite of passage, with an involving narrative structure. Bea’s awakening – her ultimate realisation and lesson learnt – is that she is the product of and heir to her parents’ fearlessness, and while Sharon is perhaps the least expressive character in a film about a raucously loud family, the quiet relief on her face as she witnesses her daughter returning to life is perhaps the film’s key emotional scene. Some things do not need to be said, even if Bea takes her time to hear them fully. And so we see this wildflower bloom, as she stops being a merely wise-beyond-her-years child with a grown-up’s responsibilities, and becomes an adult out in the world as her own parents did before her.

strap: Coma-ing of age: Matt Smukler’s hospital-set family dramedy pieces together the life story of a young woman growing up with disabled parents

© Anton Bitel