What does it mean for a film to be “a love letter to the Heartland”?
That's how "Different Flowers" is being pitched. Director Morgan Dameron grew up spending summers at her grandparents’ farm in Moberly, Missouri, and last summer the Kansas City native spent 18 days shooting her first feature film here.
The film begins with Millie (Emma Bell), a high-strung bride, fleeing her wedding with her more free-spirited younger sister Emma (Hope Lauren). Emma’s battered red Jeep carries them from Kansas City into a montage of rural Missouri and Kansas: sunsets over wheat fields, seas of sunflowers and quirky tourist attractions like Cawker City’s “World’s Largest Ball of Twine.”
Certainly there is love in how cinematographer and Overland Park native Jordan McNeile reconnected with his hometown while working on the film.
“It had been a dream of mine to come back and shoot a project — any project — let alone a feature film with some of my longest known collaborators and friends,” McNeile says. “The city and community of Kansas City blew me away with their generosity and genuine interest in contributing to our movie. I get a little mushy inside just thinking about it.”
There is also a lot of “quirk” in this film, some of which stands in for character development and narrative arc. Emma’s unreliable Jeep has a name, Albert, which is a classic Hollywood trope for identifying a character as goofy and fun-loving. And anyone who’s seen a few family comedies will know from early on that, by the end of the film, Emma must become more responsible and Millie has to learn to be less constrained.
Much of what drives these characters is never really clear, though. We’re encouraged to cheer for Millie when she jilts Charlie (Sterling Knight) at the altar, and to bristle when he pushes her to apologize for humiliating him in front of 200 wedding guests. But Charlie isn’t presented as a villain in any way. (Millie clearly shared his enthusiasm to “settle down” until shortly before the wedding; her insistence that he wouldn’t support her decision to apply to law school seems odd because we never see her mention the idea to him.) Her frustration with her relationship ends up being confusing rather than compelling.
In this sense, the filmic “love letter” is not to the characters but to the landscape. And there is inarguable visual charm and sometimes overwhelming beauty on the prairie.
“Visually, the expansive views and open country just outside the suburbs allowed us to shoot a country road trip movie about 45 minutes from the city itself,” says McNeile. “And in the same day, we could shoot a wide shot of a huge downtown skyline. It was really special. And without that proximity, we would’ve had a much harder time making this film.”
McNeile says director Morgan Dameron wanted the film to have two distinct approaches: one for the opening wedding sequence and another for the rest of the movie.
“We decided the wedding and church look would be more classical, with the camera on sticks or a dolly, and the rest of the movie in a free-floating handheld to give the audience a more intimate relationship with our two leads.”
The handheld sequences lend the film a pseudo-documentary style, allowing the landscape to act as a dominant character in the film, but the people who populate this landscape seem mostly to be interlopers: Millie and Emma (like Dameron) on their grandmother’s farm just for the summer; hunky love interest Blake (Rob Mayes), a med student staying with family for the summer. Grandma Mildred (Shelley Long) doesn’t appear until the third act. And the natives we do meet, diner owner Dolly (Cecelia Antoinette) and unnamed shop owners, are presented as eccentric stand-ins for small town life. When Millie complains that Dolly knows the wedding's been called off and now “the whole town will know,” it leads us to wonder … who? No one in town seems to know the sisters.
But everyone around here knows the beauty of sunsets over wheat fields, the charm of Midwestern small-town diners and museums. And everyone who sees the film when it hits area theaters on Friday (its world premiere was in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival) will likely feel affection for something in the montage of peculiar rural roadside attractions.
We’re not used to seeing Kansas City’s skyline in feature films, much less other streets and buildings immediately recognizable to so many of us, or a character wearing a Boulevard Brewing T-shirt. And there’s something delightful – even lovable – about all of that.
Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.