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Review: Zoey Deutch blossoms at the center of the wobbly dark teen comedy ‘Flower’

Erica Vandross, the 17-year-old at the center of “Flower,” is no delicate blossom. She’s an exuberantly irreverent high school rebel who considers fellatio her true calling — in other words, a male fantasy wrapped in female self-empowerment.

As the story opens, she’s using her special skill to raise bail money for her dad; she eventually finds an even higher purpose for her seductive know-how, as an avenging angel for a victim of sexual abuse. Call her “Manic Pixie Dream Girl: SVU.”

The good news is that Erica is played by Zoey Deutch (“Everybody Wants Some!!”), who at 23 has the serious charisma and comic chops of an actor on the cusp of stardom. (Her upcoming releases include the Johnny Depp drama “Richard Says Goodbye” and “The Year of Spectacular Men,” written by her sister, Madelyn Deutch, and directed by their mother, Lea Thompson.)

If “Flower,” helmed by Max Winkler from a screenplay credited to him, Matt Spicer (“Ingrid Goes West”) and Alex McAulay, pushes the credulity envelope beyond the point of no return, Zoey Deutch manages something nearly miraculous: She imbues her often horrid character with gravity-defying charm and nuanced vulnerability beneath the tough veneer. With its strained comedy and outlandish twists, the film hasn’t the oomph to do for her what “Easy A” did for Emma Stone, but Deutch’s assured performance as a teenage nonconformist recalls that movie-career moment.

As he showed with his feature debut, the Michael Angarano-Uma Thurman starrer “Ceremony,” Winkler has a taste for off-the-wall coming-of-age stories. He also has an eye for the lived-in details that serve as the launching pad for the absurdities to come. In this case, the setting is the tract-house suburbia of certain stretches of the San Fernando Valley. The monotonous nowheresville vibe is accentuated by Carolina Costa’s cinematography, with its sun-faded palette and suggestions of stifling summer heat.

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It’s a place where cruelty might be a cure for boredom or discontent, especially for Erica, who’s not thrilled to see her mother (Kathryn Hahn) settling down with her new boyfriend, Bob (Tim Heidecker). He’s a square but solid sort, and Hahn is thoroughly convincing as someone who’s determined to hold on to the kindest man she’s ever known, and crazed with fear that she’ll lose him because of her daughter’s knack for relationship-sabotaging misbehavior. Every interaction between Hahn and Deutch contains a whole mother-daughter history. Less persuasive is the screenplay’s insistent outrageousness.

When Erica and her best friends (Dylan Gelula and Maya Eshet) aren’t wasting time in the bowling alley, ogling a “hot old guy” played by a cagey Adam Scott, they’re involved in more enterprising activities. They ensnare and then extort the middle-age men who partake of Erica’s talents, her pals lying in wait to snap the incriminating photos. Erica is steadily saving her share of the blackmail money, but before she has enough to get her father out of prison, she’s forced to deal with a major household disruption — the arrival of her future stepfather’s 18-year-old son. Newly released from rehab, Luke (Joey Morgan) is beset by severe anxiety and struggling with eating disorders.

Though engagingly played by Morgan, Luke is a character who makes less sense the more he reveals about himself. He’s a construct that serves the story’s needs, however muddled they may be. His disclosure of a middle-school experience with a sexual predator is the perfect tidbit for a bored entrapment queen like Erica, who springs into action with a scheme to take down the bad guy.

Winkler isn’t able to finesse the story’s swerves from dark comedy to plain dark, not to mention the eleventh-hour swing into rom-com territory. He’s better at zeroing in on the awkwardness of a family dinner for a barely melded-together family, or the hunter-and-prey dynamics of an expertly played supermarket pickup scene between Deutch and Scott.

Mistaking provocation for insight, and failing to sell the presumed heroism of its cunning central character, the movie grows less involving with each step. It can’t make Erica Vandross’ fate matter, but in Deutch it gives us a motor-mouthed wonder who commands attention.

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‘Flower’

Rating: R, for crude sexual content and language throughout, graphic nude drawings, some drug content, and a brief violent image

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles

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