11-year-old Wang Han (Liu Wenqing) lives with his mother (Yan Ni), father (Wang Jingchun) and sister (Zhao Shiqi) in a remote village in the Guizhou province of China during the Cultural Revolution. When his teacher (Yu Yue) gives Wang the honor of leading the morning exercises at school, he persuades his mother to make him a new white shirt despite their family's poverty. Wang, however, loses the shirt while playing out in the local river with his friends. As it turns out, a fugitive (Wang Ziyi) on the run for murder, had stolen the precious shirt, and when Wang converses with him deep in the woods, he promises to buy him a new shirt. Meanwhile, Wang promises not to disclose his encounter with the fugitive to anyone or else his family will be killed.
Children tend to see the world in black-and-white. As they mature, they start to realize that the world, in fact, has many shades of gray. Wang gradually experiences that kind of epiphany as he learns that there's more to the fugitive than meets the eye. The fugitive may seem like a monster and even act like one. However, his motive for committing the act of murder makes him less of a monster and more of a deeply wounded human being who was merely seeking revenge for the rape of his younger sister.
Liu Wenqing gives a tender performance that grounds the film in both poignancy and realism; he's not a precocious child, just an average 11-year-old who's at a turning point in his life as a child. Xiaoshuaoi wisely avoids going over-the-top with Wang's epiphanies as well as spoon-feeding those revelations to the audience. 11 Flowers never becomes preachy, maudlin or hackneyed because its writer/director respects the audiences' intelligence and imagination.
What makes 11 Flowers more than your average coming-of-age story is that its protagonist, Wang, has a very believable, organic character arc, and while the plot does tease you with elements of thriller and suspense, it never loses its focus on the drama that unfolds as Wang learns how to grapple with the harsh realities of growing up. The backstories of the murder and the Cultural Revolution are mere stepping stones enrich Wang's character arc instead of serving as plot devices. In fact, writer/director Wang Xiaoshuai never actually shows you the actual murder taking place thereby leaving that up to your own power of imagination. Even the awakenings of Wang's sexual hormones are handled quite gracefully and with a light touch of humor, i.e. when Wang's mother notices something interesting and new about Wang's underwear as she does his laundry. The story unfolds from the point of view of Wang from start to finish, much like I Wish and The 400 Blows were also centered on the spiritual journey of its young protagonists.