- LOS ANGELES
Wildflower, which Momentum Pictures is releasing in theaters today (3/17), marks director Matt Smukler’s narrative feature debut.
The comedy-drama--which made its world premiere at last year's Toronto International Film Festival--had an unlikely beginning, rooted in a short film Smukler devised as a companion piece to an essay his niece Christina had penned for her college application. The short, which highlighted her experiences caring for neurodivergent parents, evolved into a lauded feature-length documentary in 2020. Directed by Smukler, it too was titled Wildflower.
While in development on another project, which was originally slated to be his first narrative feature, Smukler recalled screenwriting collaborator Jana Savage observing that the story told in the documentary had tremendous promise as a narrative film. Perhaps she had enough distance from the story to see what Smukler at first didn’t. But he came to realize that Savage was correct in her assessment. Still, Smukler did not want to directly re-create the documentary in a narrative feature. Instead it needed to be a feature inspired by the documentary, serving as a jumping-off point to delve into and capture the spirit of an atypical family and make it relatable to viewers from all walks of life. He and Savage went to work to realize that vision.
Just as Wildflower, as a documentary and then a narrative feature, was spawned by a short film, so too has Smukler’s career been one that diversified from short-format fare--commercials, music videos and short films--into long-form pursuits. In fact, Smukler remains active in spotmaking via production company Rakish.
Smukler feels his commercial directing has informed his feature endeavors. “In many ways the commercials I’m drawn to and tend to do are more narrative-driven stories,” he shared, noting that at first he was known for comedy advertising. But a script/storyboard came one day that had more of an emotional storytelling bent and ever since that has largely been the kind of work he’s done for assorted brands and ad agencies. This experience in comedy and pathos dovetailed well with the narrative feature Wildflower, related Smukler, in that the movie is one which meshes humor and heart, hopefully leading audiences to “feel something” at the end, perhaps changing viewers’ perspectives on neurodivergent people, no longer categorizing them as “intellectually disabled” or with some other negative term.
Smukler assembled a cast which included Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), Dash Mihok (Ray Donovan, Silver Linings Playbook), Charlie Plummer (Looking for Alaska, Lean on Pete), Alexandra Daddario (Mayfair Witches, Baywatch), Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond), Reid Scott (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Veep), Erika Alexander (Get Out, Living Single), Jacki Weaver (Yellowstone, Animal Kingdom), Jean Smart (Hacks, 24), and introducing Samantha Hyde.
Shipka stars as Bea Johnson, a high school student looking to make sense out of and balance ordinary teen struggles with extraordinary domestic obstacles. Born to neurodivergent parents (portrayed by Hyde and Mihok) who are fiercely independent, Bea feels obliged to take care of them, unwilling to spring out of the nest to go to the college of her dreams--even though she has the academic chops to do so. However, it’s not certain she’s even going to make it to high school graduation as at the outset of the film we find her in a coma for unknown reasons. Bea’s witty, at times bewildered voiceover takes us through the journey of her life, eventually explaining how she wound up in a coma, and the wisdom she came to realize upon coming to consciousness.
While the casting of Shipka as Bea was vital, Smukler said that the most essential role to fill was that of her mom, Sharon (Hyde). “From the beginning it was always critical that we cast the role of Sharon with a neurodivergent actor. That was not negotiable,” said Smukler who affirmed that he would not have done the movie if they didn’t find Hyde who made her feature acting debut with Wildflower.
Instrumental in that bit of casting, among making other invaluable contributions, was Collaborating with RespectAbility and Miracle Project founder Elaine Hall. Smukler credited her with helping in the effort to do full justice to both the story and the neurodivergent community, “making sure we got the tone right.”
Achieving the proper tone was a key priority for Smukler who described the juxtaposition of comedy and drama as “a real balancing act.” The director was sensitive and conscious of having the comedy play right--laughing with the characters, not at them. He wanted the kind of comedy that exists within a family, helping to make the family and the characters that much more accessible to an audience.
Smukler added that veteran actor Mihok brought much to his role as Derek who is Bea’s dad and Sharon’s husband. Smukler noted that Mihok has been vocal about having Tourette syndrome. And while Derek’s condition is different that Tourette syndrome, Smukler observed that Mihok possesses “a certain empathy” which he brought to his portrayal of Derek. Furthermore, continued Smukler, Mihok was great in supporting Hyde, bringing his sensitivity to her as well as his extensive acting experience which dates back to childhood.
In the big picture, Smukler said that from the very beginning--with the documentary and then this narrative feature--his goal was to get folks to be more aware of their preconceived notions of what it means to have a so-called disability, what it’s like to live with being neurodivergent. “My hope is after you watch this movie, that perception may shift a little bit.” Smukler observed that people have much in common, all dealing with a lot of the same issues. And the spirit, love and optimism of the core and extended family in Wildflower, folks living their lives and not being overly critical, carries valuable lessons for all of us.
Following its theatrical release today, Wildflower will be available on digital and On Demand next week (3/21).
As for what’s next, Smukler has a couple of prospective long-form projects in the hopper--one with eOne which co-financed Wildflower. He also intends to remain deeply involved in commercialmaking via Rakish. “I love telling stories,” affirmed Smukler, noting it doesn’t matter whether they are presented in short or long format.