Film Review – Flora and Son
Flora And Son
Ever since his critically acclaimed Once (2007), writer/director John Carney has routinely come back to explore the connective power of music. Whether it’s in Begin Again (2013) or Sing Street (2016), Carney has taken a deliberately sentimental approach in how music can heal, inspire, and draw empathy. He basks so deeply in this style that his work has often been described as fantasies. He continues that streak in his latest, Flora and Son (2023). It’s a tale of characters unsatisfied with their positions in life – trying to find a tiny ounce of happiness in the margins. It’s about mothers and their children, and how songs can build bridges over generational divides. While this doesn’t wander too far away from what we have seen from Carney, there is no denying that he is good at telling this kind of story. This is a sweet and earnest movie filled with humanity and heartfelt music.
It’s interesting that something can be this tender and warm even when our protagonists are a mess. Flora (Eve Hewson) is a single mother trying to keep her teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan) out of trouble in modern day Dublin. When we first meet them, Max has found himself on the wrong side of the law, edging closer and closer to doing time in a detention center. In a desperate attempt to keep him occupied, Flora grabs an old acoustic guitar from a garbage truck, has it restored, and gifts it to Max, who promptly rejects it. But instead of tossing the thing away, Flora keeps it for herself. She decides to learn how to play guitar for her own benefit, even taking online lessons from Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who lives in Los Angeles. This sudden change in hobby draws questionable glances from Flora’s ex and Max’s father, Ian (Jack Reynor) who just happens to be a musician as well.
The narrative unfolds through two parallel arcs for Flora. On one hand, we see her developing her musical skills. In between practice sessions, Flora and Jeff learn about one another – their pasts, their hopes, dreams, and regrets. This section plays like a traditional romance, even though it takes place over the internet. Carney’s direction (along with John Conroy’s cinematography) creates a unique visual representation of Flora and Jeff’s budding relationship. As their interactions take on a deeper level, Jeff will magically be placed face to face with Flora. Instead of everything playing out on computer screens, the two are depicted in the same room, as a means of representing how much they are connecting.
On the flip side, Flora’s dynamic with Max is one of tremendous difficulty, frustration, and love. It is not easy being a parent, and it’s even harder being a single one. Flora was, let’s say, a “free spirit” in her youth, and became pregnant before she was ready for it. It’s clear that she loves Max and that she tries to give him a proper upbringing, but she is prone to letting exasperation get the better of her. Their arguments can be cruel and filled with expletives, but we see Flora doing her best to reach the lad. Maybe that’s part of the reason she took up music. Not only does she take lessons as a way to have something of her own, but as a means to find commonality with Max, who shows his own musical talents (everyone just has musical abilities in this world, apparently). Both Flora and Max are in a place where they are searching for purpose and meaning, and it just so happens that they find it in the same musical arena.
The single biggest highlight of Flora and Son is Eve Hewson, whose performance is a mixture of abrasiveness and compassion. Flora is written without a filter – she will say and act upon any urge, regardless of how lewd or crude they may be. Much of the comedy comes from Flora spouting out four letter words and other adult-oriented language at the drop of a hat. But Hewson gives Flora a vulnerability that draws us in. Flora’s personality comes from years of trying to find fulfillment while helping raise a human being, which – understandably – has left her jaded. It would seem that picking up the guitar has given Flora a new sense of self, and Hewson’s performance allows us to see that warmth come bubbling to the surface.
Remember when I mentioned how Carney’s work incorporates the tone and atmosphere of a fantasy? That element is in play here. Despite the hardships and obstacles characters face, there’s a lightness that hints that everything will be ok regardless of what happens. This is a dimension where all the troubles of the world can be solved by one beautifully performed song. Of course, that’s not really how things work. In reality, Jeff probably wouldn’t be the nice musician-turned-teacher who suddenly opens himself up to a stranger online. Ian would likely not be the flaky but lovable dad who’s not perfect but who isn’t outright terrible either. And Max wouldn’t change his reckless behavior simply because his mom knows how to play the guitar. But somehow, all of that stuff doesn’t matter. Carney’s writing and direction doesn’t linger on actuality. The film is more concerned with emotional truth. The thoughts, feelings, and decisions are clear and understandable. The narrative boils character traits down into simple and straightforward motivations. The overall result benefits from that. Carney could very well have started things off with “Once Upon a Time…” and it would make total sense.
I was won over by the sincerity of Flora and Son. The cast deliver charming and hilarious performances, the music is fun and catchy, and the overall mood is just plain lovely. It never gets too dark or dramatic, nor does it get so sappy that it becomes saccharine. This is one of those movies that goes down smoothly, like a song you can listen to over and over again.