Directed by Matt Smukler in his fiction feature debut and written by Jana Savage, Wildflower, which had its world premiere at TIFF in 2022, tells the story of Bea Johnson (Kiernan Shipka) a high school senior with an upbringing that is unlike most of her peers. She’s the only child of Sharon (Samantha Hyde), who is intellectually disabled, and Derek (Dash Mihok), whose development was stunted when a drunk driver hit him when he was young. Because of these factors, Bea has been forced to mature at a much faster pace than normal. While some kids were watching cartoons and shirking off chores, Bea was helping her mother get ready for work and making sure that her father was keeping track of their money. Even at a young age, Bea knew her parents were different, but she also knew they loved her and wanted only the best for her bright future.
Bea’s story is told nonlinearly, with the film actually starting with her in a coma in the hospital surrounded by her parents and extended family which consists of her mother, Sharon’s mother Peg (Jean Smart), Sharon’s sister and brother-in-law Joy (Alexandra Daddario) and Ben (Reid Scott), and Loretta (Jacki Weaver), Derek’s unfiltered mother. We don’t find out exactly how Bea landed in a coma until the end of the story, but instead journey through her life from birth to present with her breaking-the-fourth-wall narration and through chats that the social worker Mary (Erika Alexander) has individually with everyone at the hospital. Choosing narration here as a storytelling device lends itself to the project quite well, as it allows the audience to get intimate with such specific circumstances.
The wonderful ensemble both buoys the story and at times distracts from it, simply because of the volume of characters that need to be established efficiently both in the past and present. All contribute to Bea’s story and have a rewarding payoff in the end, but there are times when the story feels out of focus in order to give each character their due. Unsurprisingly, Jean Smart’s performance is a rich and powerful blend of hope and heartache, as we saw the struggles her character went through in her marriage while raising Sharon and then consequently Bea when she was a newborn. Smart and her onscreen husband Brad Garrett deliver raw, breathtaking performances that capture the fear and uncertainty that all parents face, which is only heightened in their case as the parents of an intellectually disabled child. Buried tension and resentment bubble over when Peg makes it clear that their daughter cannot raise a baby on her own, which leads to an explosive argument that feels so authentic that the unsteady aftermath will leave you at a loss for words.
Actress Ryan Kiera Armstrong who plays a young Bea for about half of the film is excellent and perfectly captures both the free-spiritedness associated with childhood and the mature, hardened personality Bea’s been forced to develop. What’s lovely is how the story is sure to explore the benefits of Bea’s situation rather than simply dwelling on the hardships. A scene that comes to mind is when Armstrong’s Bea reluctantly has breakfast with her aunt and uncle, who take her in briefly during a particularly volatile time in the Johnson household.
Bea is horrified at the way this picture-perfect family operates. The prim and proper twin boys down a handful of vitamins every morning, rely on their mother to tell them their schedule and are totally rattled when any little thing that is not neatly mapped out happens. (Seriously, one of them gets the tiniest cut on their finger and it was taken as seriously as if his finger was chopped clean off.) Sure, Bea might have had to sacrifice some childhood luxuries and perhaps has never had broccoli before, but she has the benefits of both being self-sufficient and delightfully unfiltered. After all, wearing pants at the breakfast table is overrated.
The story finds its groove when the past and present more closely align and Kiernan Shipka takes over as Bea for both time periods. The Mad Men and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina star brings a sharp edge and biting wit to Bea which feels like a natural progression from the version of her we saw in childhood. It’s both expected and devastating to see Bea grow frustrated with her parents who want nothing but the best for their daughter. Bea’s life is taking off in a number of directions—romantically, professionally, and educationally—leaving her little to no time to do the chores and pay as close attention to her parents as she used to.
Samantha Hyde and Dash Mihok bring to life the complex and often misunderstood characters that are Sharon and Derek. They routinely fend off well-meaning, but hard-to-hear concerns from loved ones and are unfairly burdened with excess pressure to prove themselves and their abilities. The two anchor a lovely and pivotal scene partly through the film when Ethan (Charlie Plummer), Bea’s boyfriend who, until then, hadn’t been invited over to Bea’s house, shows up unexpectedly with pizza. Bea’s been dreading this inevitable interaction due to her embarrassment of her parents, but Sharon and Derek take charge of the meet and greet and put everyone at ease with their hospitality. Ethan is instantly taken by the warm environment, something he was never fortunate enough to have growing up. This serves as a bit of a reality check for Bea, who was starting to lose sight of what was really important.
Despite feeling overcrowded and at times unevenly paced, Wildflower is a warm coming-of-age tale that amplifies the stories of underrepresented groups in the media. In addition to highlighting the complications that come with growing up, it reminds you to appreciate the people who appreciate you back.
Wildflower is in select theaters March 17 and on demand and digital March 21.