Bea Johnson (Kiernan Shipka), the protagonist of the plucky coming-of-age film “Wildflower,” is a snarky high school senior whose future holds great promise. However, Bea begins the film with a slight problem, one she is quick to brush off. Bea is in a coma.
Bea hardly shows any true concern that she’ll eventually wake up. But this flimsy conceit enables the film to jump back in time, to tell the story of how a teenager became so confident in her ability to take care of herself.
In voice-over, Bea explains that both of her parents are intellectually disabled. Bea narrates the film in flashback, beginning when her father, Derek (Dash Mihok), and her mother, Sharon (played by the disabled actress Samantha Hyde), married in a whirlwind romance. This left the family matriarchs, Peg (Jean Smart) and Loretta (Jacki Weaver), to worry over the fates of their respective children. Peg wanted the pair to divorce, and Loretta wanted them to be sterilized. In the end, neither happened, and Bea was born.
This initial face-off establishes that despite the film’s light, sardonic tone, the discussions that it includes about its disabled characters are blunt and often cruel. And as a child, Bea engages in her own internal debates. She wants to defend her parents against school bullies, but she’s also ashamed to bring a boy home. She resists her extended family’s offers to take her in, but she also expresses resentment toward her parents over the difficulty of moving out to go to college.
Shipka ably handles the responsibility of leading the story, but the director Matt Smukler has a harder time balancing the charming and empathetic ensemble performances with the script’s constantly judgmental tone. “Wildflower” is a nervy sit, a movie that eventually makes its way toward acceptance, but only after putting its disabled characters through the trial of dehumanizing questions.
Rated R for language and references to teenage sexuality. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters.