Kiernan Shipka stole our hearts in Mad Men, led us through the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and now she’s narrating through the life of a teenager with neurodivergent parents in Wildflower (premiered at TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival), starring alongside Jean Smart, Jacki Weaver and Brad Garrett.
When we first meet Bea (Shipka), she is in a coma with her bickering family around her hospital bed. The film takes us on the journey to discover how she got there, with Bea voicing over (in the most appealing sarcastic tone), flashbacks to her life, from a baby all the way to the incident that landed her in the hospital as a teen.
Bea says that growing up, she always heard that her parents, played by Dash Mihok and Samantha Hyde, were “special,” adding that she then learned, “that’s what adults say when someone has a disability.” Throughout much of the movie, Bea reflects on balancing being a kid with feeling a sense of responsibility to take care of her parents, including trying to navigate the possibility of going to college away from home.
Director Matt Smukler explained that the story is inspired by his own family, with Bea “loosely based” on his niece.
“It's inspired by her story, really,” Matt Smukler told Yahoo Canada. “Then I wanted to celebrate the humour that is in the family.”
“This is a family that loves to laugh and dance, and music is really important to them, and so that was really important for this movie to have all those elements.”
'It was a really easy, yes I want to do this’
The beauty of Wildflower sits in this great wit that Kiernan Shipka’s character has and the story's overall endearing comedic tone. Of course, it helps to see the more chaotic group scenes where Bea’s grandparents, played by Jean Smart, Jacki Weaver and Brad Garrett, are all arguing, as Bea’s uptight aunt Joy (Alexandra Daddario) and her anxious husband, played by Reid Scott, insert themselves into the bickering.
For Shipka, a bonafide teen dramedy star, it was easy to agree to sign on to the project as Bea.
“I know when a script makes me cry in a really genuine, real way that it's something worth pursuing,” she told Yahoo Canada. “The character of Bea was a grounded young woman."
“She was written with such an individuality and such a dryness that I really loved… It was a really easy, ‘yes I want to do this’... This is a really fully fleshed out, well written character that I can hopefully bring a lot of life to.”
When it came to actually casting Shipka, Matt Smukler revealed that she was always his first choice.
“She was literally my top choice,” Smukler said. “I knew that she could pull this off and bring so much more to the character, in many ways.”
“It was an inspiration and so I really wanted her to kind of make it her own, and I really believe that she could do that.”
'It was super, super critical to me that we got it right'
While Wildflower is inspired by the filmmaker’s family, he actually wasn’t certain if that was something he was going to share, but from the outset, Matt Smukler wanted to be able to authentically represent these characters, specifically Sharon and Derek's characters who have are intellectually disabled.
“I actually was not thinking that I was going to share that it was a personal connection at all and so it was very important to me that it was very authentic,” Smukler said. “We hired a disability consultant who was with us and was really instrumental to us,... it was super, super critical to me that we got it right, and because my sister-in-law has a cognitive disability, obviously it was very, very important.”
After her experience shooting this film, Kiernan Shipka is celebrating all the “joy” that there was on the set of the movie, especially while working with Dash Mihok and Samantha Hyde, playing her character’s parents.
“There was so much genuine joy on set every single day and a lot of those scenes with the whole family have sort of a loose improvisational element that was really fun to play with,” Shipka said. “A lot of times with chemistry and dynamics on set, you try really hard and maybe you get lucky and there's some time before to really bond, but this was really easy.”
“Samantha and Dash are both deeply vibrant individuals and I felt so close to them so quickly, and there was something about the bond that just made the scenes kind of flow and feel really fun to play around with.”
“I think everybody did this movie for the right reasons and that was really important,” Smukler added. “I felt great going in and I had no reservations.”