If most teen movies are concerned with a loss of innocence, then Max Winkler’s new film Flower, out this week and starring Zoey Deutch, is not your typical teen movie. In Flower, the 23-year-old Deutch plays Erica Vandross, a seventeen-year-old whose sexual confidence far outstrips her certainty in other parts of life. Her modus operandi is to offer blow jobs to men she can extort for money, saving up so that she can bail her father out of jail. The film starts with her giving one of these blow jobs to a policeman (“Where’d you learn to give head like that?” he gasps. “Middle school,” she says impassively) and ends with a visit to prison. In between, there’s a crusade to bring down a male teacher that her stepbrother Luke, played by Joey Morgan, has accused of molestation as well as a Thelma and Louise-esque escape attempt, with Luke and Erica speeding across a Joshua tree-punctuated landscape in a stolen Saab convertible and dressed in clothes seemingly inspired by Floridian retirees—Erica in particular has a penchant for flamingo-colored sunglasses and palm-tree prints. The showdown, when it comes, is emotional, not physical, and involves a seemingly innocuous moment that causes Erica to break down in Luke’s arms.
“I think that ultimately most movies portray vulnerability as a loss of innocence, but by the end of this movie, it’s the opposite direction,” says Deutch, who in real life speaks with the same breakneck cadence as her character. Though the plot is driven largely by some decisions of dubious morality on Erica’s part, the audience feels at least empathetic, if not quite sympathetic, toward her—a fact that speaks volumes about Deutch’s ability to tap into the subtleties of being human and, more specifically, a teenager who’s desperately trying to cover her fear of abandonment. “You have to believe that beyond all of Erica’s bravado there’s this fragile girl,” points out Deutch. “A movie like Flower is about the regaining of innocence and about the learning process of allowing yourself to be vulnerable.”
Deutch has Hollywood running through her veins—her parents are director Howard Deutch and actress/director Lea Thompson, while her sister, Madelyn, is also an actress—and may have dabbled briefly in competitive jazz dance growing up (Thompson also briefly flirted with a career in dancing before turning to acting), but she always knew she wanted to act. At the prestigious Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, she majored in both performance and visual arts. “I have an immense amount of gratitude for being surrounded by so many people who do similar, like-minded things,” she says. She started acting nearly ten years ago, with her first part on the Disney Channel’s The Suite Life on Deck, but more recent roles have included the love interest and only female in the main cast of Richard Linklater’s Eighties frat-house film Everybody Wants Some!!, a redeemed bully in the teen drama Before I Fall, and the socialite Oona O’Neill, girlfriend of Nicholas Hoult’s JD Salinger, in the biopic Rebel in the Rye. Later this year, she will appear in The Year of Spectacular Men alongside her sister, who also wrote the script and score. The film was directed by her mother. (“Everybody always wants some kind of dirty detail—I would too, a mother and two sisters made a movie!—but the truth is, we got along really well and respected each other throughout the entire process,” she has previously said.)
But despite this show reel, Deutch says that Flower’s Erica was her “dream role. “The character felt so complicated and frustrating and vulnerable, and I’d watched so many of my male friends get these types of roles,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of strength in vulnerability.”
The movie was shot over only seventeen days, a short amount of time to ask actors to form any sort of bond together, but a lot of the work was done beforehand. Deutch cites texts such as Go Ask Alice, about a fifteen-year-old teenage runaway who develops a drug habit, and Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, a 1994 analysis by therapist Mary Pipher of the depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem she saw in her young female clients, as being key to helping her understand what she saw as Erica’s personality disorder. “How I interpreted it was that Erica is somebody who makes serious efforts to avoid abandonment and she has this distorted sense of self,” she says. “She has patterns of unstable relationships in her life.” With Winkler’s approval, she attended therapy, answering questions as if she were Erica. The therapist, she says, knew that her name was Zoey and that she would play the role of Erica in Flower but didn’t know that Deutch was attempting to actually personify Erica during their sessions. “We wanted her opinion firsthand on what she thought if I was Erica.”
That Deutch embodies the fragile world of her character so completely and so easily is the result of an environment where she didn’t feel intimidated to do what needed to be done. It was also the first time she’d worked with a female cinematographer, Carolina Costa, who was responsible for the hazy, sun-bleached visual direction of the film. “Not only did she make me feel safe, she made me feel supported, and I loved the freedom that she gave me to move around,” Deutch says.
Overall, according to Deutch, the writers and Winkler were collaborative and open, and she never felt like she couldn’t voice an opinion, particularly if she thought her character would do or say something different. Prior to shooting, she was encouraged to spend a lot of time with Maya Eshet and Dylan Gelula, who play her best friends Claudine and Kala in the film. The trio would go to the mall “and get milkshakes together” and scour vintage stores to find clothes they thought their characters would wear. “Max was really adamant that he wanted every fiber of my DNA to go into this,” Deutch says. The actress also helped design Erica’s bedroom, working with the designers and artists who created it. “Ultimately, whether we realized it or not, this allowed us to feel very comfortable in a really organic way.”
For Deutch, the research has always been part of the appeal. For the role of Oona O’Neill (daughter of Eugene) in Rebel in the Rye, she delighted in delving into a world that was so well documented and threw herself into learning about elite New York society in the Forties. “Here’s this person, O’Neill, and she was taking voice lessons, she had this affected Atlantic accent, she took these etiquette classes, she would drink a martini and smoke a cigarette,” she says. “It was a very interesting world. It was the first time I’d played a real person, and there was that pressure that goes with playing a real person—it becomes a part of their history, and you want to do justice to that.”
Doing justice to her characters is a theme throughout Deutch’s performances. There’s a clear line of empathy that runs through her roles as she brings them to life and injects them with depth. Growing up, she admired the 1937 Katharine Hepburn film Stage Door for the intensity of its characters. Like real humans, none of the women in the film are objectively good or bad people, but rather, inhibit a world of nuance. Deutch knows, too, that Erica is not perfect, “but being able to live with her and being really able to understand why she does what she does was really important to me,” she says. “Nothing Erica does in the movie is ever spontaneous.”
Flower is out Friday.