Ask any girl in her thirties, and she’ll likely have an inexplicable soft spot for “Flowers in the Attic,” that chilling V.C. Andrews novel passed around like a dirty secret at slumber parties and middle school playgrounds. What “Hunger Games” and “Twilight” are for millennials, the Dollanganger series was for girls who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s; the rags-to-riches story appealed to our fantasy, the brother-sister incest made it verboten. Yes, the incest. A curious hallmark of Andrews’ writing (and the books subsequently published under her name by a ghostwriter and the Andrews estate), brother-sister/ father-daughter/ cousin-cousin love felt every bit as stunningly taboo as young children murdering one another in a corrupt government’s version of the Olympic games. It still is.
Ironically, the premise of four children locked away in a dusty attic for years doesn’t seem as outlandish as it did when I first read the book, at age 12. In recent years, the media has been filled with numerous stories of evil men doing evil things like holding girls, some of them their own daughters, captive in basements for decades. Suddenly, a book featuring captivity, casual incest and generations of abuse in rural Virginia doesn’t seem so improbable. Andrews’ 1979 cult hit rings oddly prescient today.
All of this zeitgeist chatter is to say that Lifetime’s gamble on producing a made-for-TV movie adaptation of “Flowers” felt like a good one (the campy 1987 film adaptation, starring in Louise Fletcher and Kristy Swanson, is generally considered a flop). And a trailer for the movie, starring Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”) and Heather Graham, was generally received with excited anticipation when it was released in November.
So now that the movie has premiered on the network on Saturday (Jan. 18), does it live up to expectations? Sadly, the answer is no. The acting is flat and the movie (directed by Deborah Chow), while aesthetically pleasing, keeps on dragging on and on until you wonder why you were so excited to watch it in the first place. Lifetime felt so confident that it had a winner on its hands that it has already green-lit a second movie, an adaption of the book’s sequel, “Petals on the Wind.” Perhaps they should have waited until reviews of the first came out. Below are my reactions to the movie.
Kiernan Shipka as Cathy
The precocious, 14-year-old Shipka appears to be fearless when it comes to more mature content (though she swears she’s still not allowed to watch “Mad Men” at home). And she looks exactly the part of Cathy Dollanganger, with her perfect doll looks and sad, wise-beyond-her-years demeanor. She’s a bright spot in the movie, but it’s an uphill battle with such little plot and a stiff script by Kayla Alpert. Cathy in the book is a drama queen and a dreamer, the ballerina who fights to survive. Shipka’s Cathy is more languid and lifeless. There is also zero chemistry between her and her older brother and future romantic interest, Chris (played by Mason Dye, an actor with Zac Efron hair and blindingly white teeth).
Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn as Corrine and Olivia
It’s not surprising that veteran actresses Graham and Burstyn, as the children’s irresponsible mother and their evil grandmother, deliver the film’s strongest performances. Graham in particular is effective as the beautiful but ultimately evil mother. Her eyes are like wide, blank pools of immaturity; her porcelain but vacant beauty a mask for the kind of selfish mother who would rather see her own children waste away and die than give up trips to Paris and an inheritance. But I was left wanting more from Burstyn (whose performance as the gullible sweepstakes winner in 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream” I’m still haunting by) as the Bible-thumping, religious fanatic Olivia. Her pathetic cries for help at the end of the movie were Burstyn at her best; if the film had fully fleshed out her character’s vulnerability, we would have been left with a more memorable villain.
Both scenes involving Corrine and Chris getting whipped weren’t nearly scary enough. It’s not just the fact that Corrine’s lashes on her back were so obviously painted on, though that certainly didn’t help. There is a way to convey the kind of generational family abuse without resorting to the physical, and I’m not sure that the whippings were an effective medium to portray the kind of terror felt by the twins and Corrine at the hands of Olivia.
Not Enough Foxworth Hall
V.C. Andrews purists will tell you that much of her books’ appeal was the sheer fantasy of it all: Southern mansions and secret gardens, side rooms and libraries. Which is why it’s so disappointing that we don’t get to experience Foxworth Hall’s grandeur as we did in the books. Chow doesn’t allow the viewer to experience much more of the Foxworth family estate than the two floors of the attic. We see the mansion’s facade, we sneak down a set of stairs into their mother’s bedroom, we barely glimpse the library… and that’s about it. We never get a sense of the house’s structure, or for the opulence, the untouchable beauty of it all. Even Chris and Cathy’s escape to the property’s lake felt without view. C’mon, people. This is supposed to be the Foxworths, a family with tons and tons of money (“We’re going to be rich!” Corrine tells the children in the beginning of the movie, when she tells them about her plans). So why does the movie’s budget feel so poor?
Cathy Becomes A Woman and That Scene
One of the most pivotal scenes in the book is when Chris chops Cathy’s hair after it is mysteriously covered in tar. A moment of tenderness is meant to pass between them and — dear Lord, why is that hair so clearly fake? It sounds like metal shears are hacking into a whole head of straw. Not only was Cathy’s fake wig distracting in the scene, so were the rigid acting and dialogue. I mean, I suppose there’s no good way to convey that inherently creepy moment when a sexual relationships blossoms between a brother and sister (“So… you think of me, then?”), but Chow also failed to capture the sense of longing and girl-becomes-woman emotion of that moment. And while the director thankfully spares us unnecessarily graphic scenes between Cathy and Chris (considering Shipka’s age), she also kinds of just avoids the incest completely. The siblings kiss, then the scene cuts to black and there they are, waking up next to each other on a dirty mattress. And that’s basically that.
The Twins and Imprisonment in the Attic
Part of what made “Flowers” so haunting is the revelation that twin brother Cory died from being poisoned by donuts laced with arsenic, not pneumonia, prompting Cathy and Chris to escape the attic once and for all. In the book, the twins are stunted in growth, from the lack of sunlight and fresh air. In the movie, the twins Carire and Cory (played by Ava Telek and Maxwell Kovach) don’t play much of a part other than to say they’re hungry. Chow misses an opportunity to make more of an analogy about their well-being and suffering, general malaise and the obtuseness of a selfish mother… Or are we just reading too much into this here?
The Escape Scene
After spending an hour (or four years) with the children in an attic, it was pretty anti-climatic to see that the children could fashion an old-fashioned blanket-rope and casually climb out of their prison/house with ease. And then there’s the LOL moment when a man hunting for deer on the property allows three completely malnourished children claiming to be Corrine’s offspring run away. It’s like Chow was in a rush to finish off the movie; if she couldn’t be bothered introducing more believability into that scene, then it should have been cut from the script.
What did you make of Lifetime’s “Flowers in the Attic” movie? And will you be watching the network’s upcoming sequel, “Petals on the Wind”? Sound off in the comments below.
Follow Youyoung Lee on Twitter: @youyoung_lee.
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