Kiernan Shipka, ‘Wildflower,’ & Parentified Teens
Momentum Pictures


In Wildflower, Kiernan Shipka Is A Parentified Teen

The coming-of-age film about growing up with neurodivergent parents is a specific experience that’s universal in its impact.

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Being a teenager is defined by dualities: adolescence and adulthood, freedom and constriction, drivers licenses and car wrecks. Britney had a point when she sang: “I’m not a girl/ Not yet a woman.”

Kiernan Shipka knows a thing or two about this gray space. She was cast in Mad Men when she was only six years old, and growing up onscreen is an incubator of this feeling, a pressure cooker for the duality between being old and young for your age. But in her new film Wildflower, a coming-of-age story about Bea, a girl growing up in Las Vegas with two neurodivergent parents (Samantha Hyde and Dash Mihok), Shipka holds it all: the freedom and frustration of being a teenager, the heartbreak and joy of being a parentified child.

“I really thought that that duality was really interesting and something that, in a really different way, I knew about,” Shipka tells NYLON. “I think that sense of feeling like you're really old at a young age, and also really young at a young age, is something that obviously sparked my interest and caught my attention.”

Wildflower is loosely based on the life of director Matt Smukler’s niece, who is the subject of a 2020 documentary of the same title. But Wildflower isn’t so much a retelling of his own family’s story, but one cast more broadly – a story about all the ways growing up with parents, who despite all their best intentions and love can’t always give you what you need.

“It does feel like it's going to be deeply relatable to a lot of people,” Shipka says. “They don't have to have the exact same sort of family situation for it to hit home.”

When we first meet Bea, she is in a coma, and she recaps the story of her life from the hospital room, surrounded by her overbearing family (which includes Hacks’ Jean Smart and The White Lotus’ Alexandra Daddario). Nobody can agree on how Bea should be raised, so she raises herself, along with her parents – learning to drive at age 8, signing her mom up for disability, hawking raffle tickets on the Strip to pay for a trip to Disneyland. All of this has made her remarkably self-possessed, with a confidence you wish you had in high school: She dates the hot new guy; she stands up to her bullies. Eventually, she has to learn to relinquish some control, to let herself be taken care of. Shipka is a master juggler of all these emotions, erupting in explosive anger as much as boundless joy.

NYLON spoke with Shipka ahead of the film’s release about coming-of-age stories, Irish goodbyes, and what she’s working on next.

This is such a special movie. It's a classic coming of age movie, but obviously it's a story that is not really told often. Can you talk a little bit about how this role came about for you?

I read the script when I was in the Hudson Valley in the summer of 2021. I was filming something there and I read the script and the first time I read it, I cried. The character to me was so compelling because I felt like she had to have this incredible sense of maturity, because of her set of responsibilities, but also at the same time read like a teenager. I really thought that that duality was really interesting and something that, in a really different way, I knew about. I think that sense of feeling like you're really old at a young age and also really young at a young age is something that obviously sparked my interest and caught my attention. I loved that it was a coming of age story within this other story about family and love and finding joy in life.

There's so much duality in being a 17-year-old, but especially if you’re a teenager thrust into a lot of responsibility. Those roles become even more fraught and it all blows up because you are so young and don't know how anything is supposed to work either.

Yeah, I think that's also playing a teenager as someone who is not a teenager anymore, you have a little bit more perspective on how intense things can feel.

Totally. One of the things that I loved about your performance and of the character is that she's so matter of fact. She is very strong-willed and self-possessed. I'm wondering how much of that was the script and how much was that you wanting to create a character choice?

I think that the arc had to sell in a real way. By the end of the movie, when Bea chooses her own destiny in a way that feels positive and fearless, I wanted to make sure that in the beginning of the film she felt resigned and hardened in some way. I think that it was important to see that she once thought her story was written, that she was destined for one kind of way, and to see her change her mind. I think it was definitely an active choice to make her a little bit resistant towards chasing any kind of dream because there were a lot of things holding her back, including herself.

I know it's based off a short documentary that the director had made that was very loosely based on his niece. Did you talk to her at all or in preparation or talk to the family at all?

No, Matt didn't want me to. It was a discussion, but at the end of the day, he made the call that he wanted it to be fictionalized to a point where he wanted me to do my own thing with Bea. I've always been so sort of inspired by [Christine] from afar and her level of strength. I think there's so much in her that is integral to this story. I mean Wildflower wouldn't exist without that family, so it was a call that we made to separate the characters enough so that I'm playing such a fictionalized version of a person, but going to work every day, you do feel the weight of like, this is a story I want to do right.

I love that scene when she just finally explodes after she bails her mom out and it's so emotional. What was it like to tap into that?

It was heavy. It was really heavy. Acting is my job and I think that I'm lucky that I'm really in love with it and excited by it. When I do something that feels like, oh, I tapped into that, I want to keep doing it. As an actor, it was a really important day for me because I felt like I got better and I showed myself that I could do something that was really challenging. I don't want to say that it was fun, but it wasn't miserable either. It exists in this weird space where it's satisfying emotionally because it felt really intense and really real. It was emotional and rewarding, and I went dancing after.

I love that.

It was a Friday night and we wrapped at nine. We did it and I was so emotional just like, I don't know where I am, but my friends were out and I went dancing and went home.

I feel like some people, if they've had a bad day or whatever, they're like, “Oh, I can't, I'm not in the place for this.” And then some people are like, “I’ve had a weird day, so I need to do this.”

Generally speaking, I tell myself that I want to stay in, but I know that I will probably enjoy the blow off steam version a little bit more. It's case by case though.

There's nothing worse than being out when you don't really want to be out. You're just nursing your one drink until it's acceptable to go home.

I know. Exactly, like makes Irish goodbye…

I wish I could Irish goodbye.

It's a skill. It depends on how many people are there. It’s hard with 20 people.

This role is so different from what you have done recently, like the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. It’s more slice of life, no magic. Is this the kind of work that you want to do more in the future?

I think the variety's always really fun. I just did a movie called Red One with Dwayne Johnson and Chris Evans, and that was not as grounded as Wildflower. It's so entertaining and so joyous. I also love playing someone that feels real and deep in human ways. There's pros and cons, and mostly pros, to all the different kinds of parts. As long as I can keep it, I'm into it.

What can you say, if anything, about this new project?

It's based around Christmas. But it's Dwayne Johnson, Chris Evans, and it's action. It's big, it's heightened, it's fun. It wrapped a month ago and I think it's going to be great. I'm very excited about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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