Zoey Deutch hates the word “quirky.” I discovered this within a minute of meeting her at the Tribeca Film Festival last month, when I used the word and she made a face that was a cross between “I just ate an entire lemon” and pure disgust.
“You’ve found my trigger word,” she said with a grimace.
To be fair, I hadn’t used the word to describe Deutch. “Quirky” doesn’t begin to encapsulate the 22-year-old — born into Hollywood as the daughter of actress Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch, she got her first breakout role in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, which earned her Hollywood acclaim after a handful of roles in failed YA franchises. She followed that with Why Him?, opposite Bryan Cranston and James Franco, and her first lead role in Ry Russo-Young’s grim, affecting Before I Fall, a part that earned her the designation of It girl — another title that Deutch openly detests.
But I was simply referring to the way indie teen heroines are often carelessly written off as “quirky,” regardless of their emotional depth and complexities. After all, the word is seldom used to describe young male characters. To be quirky is to be whimsical at best and powerless at worst. This is what makes Deutch’s performance in Max Winkler’s dark comedy Flower so refreshing.
In Flower, she plays Erica Vandross, a smart-mouthed teen who’s allergic to things like responsibility and feelings. She spends her days riding around the San Bernardino Valley in her Adidas slides, stopping to give random middle-aged men blow jobs — and then busting them with her two best friends for cash. Erica is part scammer, part vigilante. She’s also kind of an asshole.
“The movie is never at any point about this young woman learning how to be nice. I’m so sick of seeing that story,” Deutch insisted.
Erica has few inhibitions; she’s brash and deeply flawed. The film opens with Erica giving a police officer a blow job in his parked car. In his orgasmic haze, the uniformed cop asks where she learned to be so good. “Middle school,” Deutch says wryly.
“When I was preparing for this movie, it was so important that I disassociate any version of sexuality,” the actress told me. “She has no idea what her sexuality is. She’s 100 percent a virgin. Giving blow jobs has nothing to do with her sexuality — it’s a transaction. It’s a means of control.”
But Erica is vulnerable, too. Unlike so many coming-of-age films, Flower isn’t a story about loss of innocence: It’s about a girl trying to regain some of the innocence she’s already lost. In telling that story, Winkler gave Deutch complete control of her character. If dialogue read like it was written by a guy (the script was written by three dudes), he encouraged her to change it.
“She was there to check me or challenge me if it felt like I was pushing her into a direction that didn’t feel authentic to what it means to be a 17-year-old girl,” Winkler shared.
That authenticity was important to Deutch. Girlhood is messy and complicated, and it should be treated with respect and taken seriously by filmmakers. Having starred in “90 YA movies” (that’s a rough estimate) in her young career, Deutch knows that teen girls don’t want to be pandered to. When I asked her if she thought Flower would be marketed as a “teen movie,” she instead turned the subject to singer Harry Styles.
“Have you read the Rolling Stone interview with Harry Styles where he talks about teenage girls?” Deutch asked me excitedly, referring to a profile in which the ex–One Direction singer defends young girls’ musical tastes and calls them the “future.” “I’ve got a real Harry Styles problem. But it’s amazing. That interview is literally all you ever have to say about teen girls. I’m going to have to memorize it.”
It would be nice to see more characters like Erica Vandross onscreen — not that there’s a complete dearth of complicated roles written for young women in Hollywood. As Deutch was quick to point out, those roles have existed since Katharine Hepburn starred in 1937’s Stage Door, a film with a predominantly female cast and “some of the best writing of all time.” (Director Gregory La Cava reportedly allowed his young actresses to ad-lib.) But the availability of strong material for young female actors is unfortunately about “trends,” Deutch added. “It goes away and then it comes back. It’s a bummer that writing for women has to be a trend.”
“Look at Bringing Up Baby or All About Eve — all of these great, smart, funny, weird, complicated women,” she continued. “And none of them were inherently likable, either.”
Oh, yeah: Deutch hates the word “likable,” too.