“Chris, soap people are like us… They loll about in living rooms, bedrooms, sit in the kitchens and sip coffee or stand up and drink martinis… And whenever something good happens, whenever they think they’re finally going to be happy, some catastrophe comes along to dash their hopes.”—V.C. Andrews, Flowers In The Attic
When Lifetime took a chance on an adaptation of V.C. Andrews’ modern Gothic novel Flowers In The Attic earlier this year, it ended up with an oddly subdued take on the inherently pulpy premise. Though the execution was hit-and-miss, the ratings were a smash for the network—over 6 million viewers—and Twitter was flooded with the #FITA hashtag, which probably set someone at Lifetime’s heart to fluttering. Too smart to let an opportunity this good go to waste, Lifetime rushed back into production seemingly overnight to develop the sequels to the Dollanganger series, being rolled out over the coming year like chocolates in Kramer’s Kandy Kitchen.
The book that inspired Petals On The Wind sinks its multi-generational family into psychological warfare with a plot so Byzantine as to defy easy description. Lifetime’s adaptation recognizes its impossible task and razes elements wholesale to make room, but it’s still a plot-churner whose breadth only highlights the claustrophobia of the first outing. In its favor, though, paring back leaves the Dollangangers centered in a story of the ways trauma haunts the lives of everyone caught up in its web. At home in Foxworth Hall, where the previous generation enacts old hurts, Ellen Burstyn (who singlehandedly dragged the previous effort into interesting territory) lights up every moment of screen time she can get her hands on; Grandmother may be infirm but she’s no less damaged or blisteringly dry. As Corrine, Heather Graham continues in a performance that’s become an accidental masterpiece of performative blankness, studded with bursts of overt hostility and occasional guilt, and delivered in a hypnotically practiced cadence. The disparate approaches lend their scenes a Lynchian dissonance that keeps their story alive even in the brief glimpses they’re afforded.
The kids don’t fare so well. Cathy (Rose McIver, taking the movie very seriously) pursues her ballet career opposite volatile leading man Julian (Will Kemp, aware of exactly what movie he’s in), and Christopher (wooden Wyatt Nash) becomes a doctor. But chemistry and pacing conspire to make them less natural siblings than Mason Dye and Kiernan Shipka made in Flowers In The Attic, and their romance falls flat—unfortunate for a story so reliant on their connection. Carrie (Bailey Buntain) is suitably fragile and love-starved as the odd sister out, and sells a trio of the movie’s creepiest moments. But everyone’s a casualty of the editing room, as the film has a tendency to leapfrog awkwardly across plot points until things turn toward Foxworth Hall and the entanglements for which Dollangangers are fated. There, Mom’s waiting, Cathy’s out for blood, and the viewers inch closer to the delicious reveals they came for.
As Petals tracks Cathy’s increasingly coldhearted quest to conquer the past against Corinne’s more practiced emotional bulldozing, the delicious slow-motion collision of two opposing forces becomes the movie’s overriding promise, but it’s a heavy burden for a film that otherwise doesn’t have much. Petals trades on familiarity rather than development, and often skips the payoff on its buildups, fading out and leaping forward to get to the fun stuff. There are a handful of small, early beats that show just how broken the Dollangangers are—a dancer’s attic-loft makes Cathy visibly nervous, Carrie demurs at a party, “I haven’t got much of a sweet tooth”—but they’re treated with straight-faced solemnity (and accompanied by Mario Grigorov’s understated score), and the movie can’t give them much traction in the race to reach the Dollanganger showdown.
When the pulpy self-awareness begins to creep in, the movie takes a turn for the better, or rather for B-movie levels of better: Corinne and Grandmother trade barbs while staring into a symbolically shattered mirror, Cathy outlines recent events in her life in a list that momentarily shorts out her listener, and the last 20 minutes skirt everything a V.C. Andrews movie could be. But Lifetime has positioned Petals as high-octane camp—ads proclaim Grandmother the “Holy Hag” and promise Corinne “Revenge Is A Mother”—and the film takes its time realizing it’s a story about soap people, so there’s not quite enough narrative energy to ramp the first half smoothly into the second. The shifting tones end up uncomfortable bedfellows. (Because it’s bound to come up: Scenes of any actual bedfellows are equally uncomfortable.)
Still, one of the benefits of a sequel is that it doesn’t always have to be more than the sum of its parts, so long as it feels like coming home. Petals On The Wind largely skews a bit underbaked to meet the promise of its own third act, and lacks the strength of Ellen Burstyn as its central figure, but there’s enough of the all-out V.C. Andrews flavor to make this installment worth a look for those who want to catch up with a family of soap people 30 years in the making.