Director: Deborah Chow
Writer: Kayla Alpert, V.C. Andrews
Producer: Harvey Kahn, Damian Ganczewski
Stars: Heather Graham, Kiernan Shipka, Mason Dye, Ava Telek, Maxwell Kovach, Dylan Bruce, Chad Willett, Ellen Burstyn
In order to appease a cruel grandmother and scheming mother, four children are forced to hide their existence by living locked away in a mansion’s attic.
Reviews and opinions about V.C. Andrews’ “Flowers in the Attic” novel and Lifetime’s 2014 television adaptation are so mixed that a preamble is necessary to set up this particular review and opinion. I have not read the original book upon which the movie is based, so there are no judgments to be passed here based on comparisons to the source material. The 1987 film version is less than a faded memory, making this 21st century refresh an entity standing on its own in this case.
I am also a 38-year-old adult male, which I am reasonably certain is well outside the target demographic in age and gender for both the book and just about any movie airing on Lifetime. But “Dark Shadows” gave me an affinity for moody Gothic mystery thrillers, even (especially?) those with soap opera overtones, so take all of the above into consideration when weighing if my perspective might align with yours.
No matter what is criticized about the film, and there is plenty to choose from, “Flowers in the Attic” does a courtesy by being upfront about having no time for subtlety. With a six-years-long story to pack into an hour and a half, the production cheats the easiest way to sprint through emotional arcs by turning up performances to 200% and painting scenery with maudlin theatrics so thick a cleaver could not hammer a dent.
The Dollangangers live a ridiculously idyllic 1950’s lifestyle. Were they not filmed in color, scenes of the family frolicking happily before tragedy strikes could have been snipped from a lost episode of “Father Knows Best” or “The Donna Reed Show.” A doting father with Ronald Reagan-slicked hair plays catch in the yard as giggling children climb all over him. Heather Graham channels June Cleaver as a mother overdressed for her apron and beaming radiantly while holding an apple pie. The eldest son even rides a bike with a basket on it. This is Norman Rockwell in neon lights.
When an untimely accident cuts down the father and flips the tone, heavy-handed sentimentality gives up the spotlight for melodrama delivered with the feather touch of a car crash. “Flowers in the Attic” boasts an amazing cast that includes Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn, Heather Graham, Kiernan Shipka of “Mad Men,” and Dylan Bruce from “Orphan Black.” That such diverse talent delivers jagged-edged performances has to be attributed to director Deborah Chow forcing emotion to funnel through exaggerated expressions instead of letting actors naturally inhabit their roles. This is a schmaltzy production where shock, horror, or pretty much any reactive response at all is portrayed plainly with moon-sized eyes and parted lips.
Stranded without a breadwinner, the Dollangangers move in with their mother’s snooty parents the Foxworths in a mansion where the children’s existence must remain hidden lest grandfather strip mother of her fat cat inheritance. With the children secreted away in the attic, the movie introduces its greatest mystery. And that is how the Dollangangers are meant to earn one lick of sympathy when their main motivation is to wait out an ill grandfather’s impending death so everyone can become filthy rich.
Besides being the only Dollanganger without an “r” in her first name, daughter Cathy is the only remotely likable character. Mean granny is not meant to be, nor is the conniving mother. But Cathy’s brother Christopher’s constant excuses for his mother’s selfish greed paint him as a gargantuan dope. Even the five-year-old twins, barely more than ancillary props, are misbehaving brats with personalities consisting of disobedient screams and annoying whines. Yes, the way the children are neglected is horrible. But the script offers no help in extinguishing the flickering thought that on some level, these kids kind of deserve it.
Of course, no discussion of “Flowers in the Attic” is complete without referencing its most talked-about controversy. In addition to helping the novel earn a ban as smut in more than a few prudish libraries, its brother-sister incest theme propelled book sales to 40 million worldwide copies.
Story-wise, the development makes sense. Here is a young man and a young woman still in the throes of puberty with no non-related members of the opposite sex around and no meaningful adult guidance in their lives. Their manner of confinement is unhealthy for developing adolescents. Their situation is only compounded by a mother who silently condones keeping it in the family via her own marriage to a half-uncle, and a grandmother planting the idea in their heads with accusations about getting on each other sexually anyway.
Given a topic this taboo, the film’s portrayal of Christopher and Cathy’s relationship is surprisingly unclear about the effect it means to have. Am I supposed to be appalled? Titillated? Appalled if I am titillated? Whatever the intention, the actualization is a “so what” styled apathy. Neither romantic nor salacious, the sexual connection between the teens is more pitifully unfortunate for the two of them, although no more of a skeleton to put in the closet than anything else going on in the Dollanganger/Foxworth clan.
For a film fraught with automaton stiffness in the acting and daytime drama developments in its storyline, the plentiful faults collaborate in a way that is probably necessary to properly depict all of the seedy silliness and overdone seriousness that “Flowers in the Attic” weaves. If intentional, which is doubtful, then the move is brilliant. But Heather Graham’s robotic motions and emotions actually work for a character that is a fake shell of a human being in the first place. There is an undeniable guilty pleasure charm to the whole affair that would be strangely sad to replace with higher production values.
This is the type of movie where it is easy to imagine a couch full of chatty housewives liberally doling out glasses of rosé while ripping everything to shreds, yet not-so-secretly lapping up every minute of it. Because as appealingly lowbrow as the film is, turning eyes in any direction other than towards the screen is virtually impossible to do.
“Flowers in the Attic” is overacted, on the nose, and at times eye-rollingly indescribable. And yet knowing that there are four more books in the Dollanganger series, the first of which is already in production as a televised sequel, I find myself ashamedly eager to bite Lifetime’s next ham and cheese sandwich in wonderment over what happens next in this absurdly intriguing saga.
Review Score: 65