THE STORY – Flora, a young mother living in Dublin, lost touch with aspiration long ago. She juggles a sustenance-necessitated child care job and a fraught co-parenting arrangement with her unkind ex as she tries to raise her son, Max. Flora and Max’s brash rapport is both hilarious and revealing of their struggle to understand each other — she searches for autonomy and self-love masquerading as selfishness, while his longing for independence and self-expression manifests as delinquency. When the two connect over a twice-discarded used guitar, the uniting power of music brings them closer than what simple proximity can provide.
THE CAST – Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Orén Kinlan & Jack Reynor
THE TEAM – John Carney (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes
Genuinely great movie musicals are few and far between these days. That doesn’t stop director/writer John Carney from crafting music-infused charmers every few years. While not strictly a “musical” per se, the filmmaker behind “Once,” “Begin Again,” and “Sing Street” is back with another film driven by the love of song. “Flora and Son” finds Carney in his comfortable wheelhouse yet again, which is precisely what makes audiences comfortable. Are you not a fan of his previous films? This likely won’t win you over. His movies land right in my sweet spot. Once again, Carney blends humor, romance, and a love for music into a pitch-perfect combination.
Eve Hewson (“Bad Sisters”) stars as Flora, a single mom in Dublin. She’s not exactly the best mom, mostly avoiding her teen son Max (Orén Kinlan) and bickering with the boy’s father (Jack Reynor). She works as a nanny and spends nights at clubs looking for guys to hook up with. It’s a familiar setup, to be sure, but Hewson fills Flora with a disillusioned charm, fed up with herself but headstrong enough to try and change it. She’s sharp as a tack, never withholding a brutal truth. After feeling bad for avoiding her son, Flora finds a guitar in the garbage. Thinking it could be a new hobby for Max, she fixes up the instrument and gives it to him as a late birthday present (she forgot it was his birthday, of course). When he’s not interested, Flora eyes the guitar and decides it’s time for her to try something new. After searching through plenty of guitar teachers via YouTube, Flora stumbles upon Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a guitar instructor in Los Angeles.
Hewson is the secret weapon of “Flora and Son.” From the second she’s on screen, it’s clear she’s a movie star. Her expressive face can run through a gamut of emotions in the blink of an eye but lands on the perfect look to get the biggest laugh. She’s effortlessly charming, even when Flora’s mood swings or sharp jabs would be otherwise off-putting. Despite the character’s faults, Hewson’s performance shows how truly lovable Flora is. Every line is snappy and genuinely hilarious. It’s a natural, easy-going performance that makes you wonder if the script or the performance makes this character so charming.
Flora and Jeff hit it off right away. Well, almost right away. Jeff nearly bails on Flora when she hits on him in their first lesson. Naturally, the pair resumes lessons, but they spend most of the time just talking about music, including some of Jeff’s originals. The chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Hewson is electric. Even though their scenes are primarily via computer screen a world apart, Flora’s sarcastic verbal jabs and Jeff’s open-heartedness are a perfect match. Wisely, Carney stages some movie magic, bringing Jeff into Flora’s real world so that their Zoom conversations appear to happen face-to-face. The genuine ease of their back-and-forth is magnetic as they bond and talk about music. Specifically, Jeff laughs at Flora’s favorite song, “You’re Beautiful,” and makes her cry with a video of “Both Sides Now.” As they work on original music together, their connection grows stronger.
Like Carney’s previous films, there’s a palpable earnestness to the music throughout “Flora and Son.” Rather than bursting into song, like old school musicals, the characters write and play their own music, including Max, the aspiring rapper. Whether it’s the genuine love songs or the homemade dance tracks, the “Flora and Son” soundtrack will be on repeat for the rest of the year. The music works because everyone truly wears their hearts on their sleeves. As Jeff plays Flora one of his original songs for the first time, she promptly criticizes the chorus. It makes way for a poignant conversation about the vulnerability of artists and the dead-eyed stare of disinterest no one wants to receive. But this criticism births a lovely partnership. “Meet in the Middle” is a stunner of an original song and truly one of the best of the year. It captures the melancholy of being in love from a distance and wanting to close the gap.
And yet, full of romance as the film is, “Flora and Son” isn’t just about Flora and Jeff’s budding love story. “This is a love song,” Flora sarcastically declares in the final track, “High Life,” but it’s true. It’s a love song for her son, Max. Ultimately, the film is about a woman opening herself up again, discovering who she is, who she can be, and who she needs to be for her son. We’ve seen this story before, but cheering as the main character picks her life up is a thrill to watch unfold. It’s also why Hewson’s performance holds everything together, introducing the world to her as a star in the process.
Pairing catchy tunes with an undeniably sweet story, Carney’s formula repeatedly works like a charm but doesn’t feel overdone. Maybe deep down, so many of us think we could start writing gorgeous songs like this if we really tried. Perhaps this formula works because we wish it were us. Is the film too simple? Sure. Much of “Flora and Son” might feel like a long-lost sequel to “Sing Street.” But there’s an innocence to the film that’s intoxicating. It’s also genuinely hilarious, largely thanks to Hewson, and maintains a sincerity that’s hard to resist. It’ll put a smile on your face that just might stay there for the entire movie, and that’s what makes “Flora and Son” the most charming movie of the year.