“Flora and Son” (2023) – Meet Flora.
As director/writer John Carney’s (“Once” (2007), “Begin Again” (2013), “Sing Street” (2016)) film opens, Flora (Eve Hewson) and her bestie dash to a dance floor at a small Dublin club and bust up some serious, electric moves.
This big-personality, short-in-stature 31-year-old grooves with a purpose, with a certainty. At first glance, Flora seems to have all the answers, as she boogies with her bud to release tension, have fun, and possibly meet a guy.
We soon discover she doesn’t possess all the solutions to the world’s problems. Flora meets the wrong guy and makes a regretful but ultimately harmless decision, but this directionless, working-class lady hasn’t helped herself for three decades.
She’s a struggling nanny who resides in a modest flat with her 14-year-old son, Max (Oren Kinlan), and shares custody with his father, Ian (Jack Reynor), a one-time rock star whose band shared a bill with Snow Patrol.
These days, Flora and Ian’s icy relationship is only transactional, shuffling Max between their two abodes. Meanwhile, Max and she frequently storm through blizzards of acidic discourse, as any love seems buried in a permanent deep freeze.
She and Max are stuck, and the troublesome lad has sticky fingers. He frequently steals, and a law enforcement officer – played by Don Wycherley, who was perfectly cast in Carney’s “Sing Street” as a strict school instructor – tells Flora, “Find him something to do, something to keep those light fingers occupied.”
She does, as she discovers a discarded acoustic guitar and hopes that music could form a delightful distraction for Max. Yes, the melodious art form plays a central role in “Flora and Son”, a familiar and welcome theme in Carney’s most recognized movies.
The bottom line is that “Flora and Son” isn’t as moving as “Once” and not nearly as fun as “Sing Street”, but Carney, Hewson, Kinlan, Reynor, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt offer enough harmonious collaboration and chemistry – over 97 minutes – to spur a watch on AppleTV+ or at the theatres.
Gordon-Levitt plays Jeff, a Los Angeles guitar instructor, someone new to brighten Flora’s rather gray, humdrum worldview. After Max rejects his mother’s overtures to learn the six-string instrument, Flora takes the initiative to attempt the pastime, and the patient, soft-spoken Jeff offers frequent reprieves from her daily emotional churn with Max, Ian, and career hamster wheel.
Can this guitar newbie absorb Jeff’s lessons, become an exceptional axewoman, and have Snow Patrol open for her by the film’s finale?
No, that’s not Carney’s vision.
This picture is a character-driven piece about an imperfect human being who tries strolling on a righteous path with intention and keen interest, even though Flora chooses Jeff as a teacher because she “likes the look of” him and wants to play guitar so men will find her attractive.
She’s not bathing in oceans of idealism, but her actions are positive steps toward some enlightenment and joy.
Not surprisingly, the film’s best moments are during Flora and Jeff’s lessons. Since they live 5,000-plus miles apart between Dublin proper and Topanga Canyon, they engage with one another via their laptops. Several movies that filmed during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns filled their frames with Zoom applications as an interaction method for their isolated characters, and the results were mixed.
However, here, Flora’s computer fills much less of the movie screen as she sits over it in a park or at her flat, and – weirdly, in 2023 – the effect feels organic and natural. However, Carney also uses the magic of cinema to, at times, bring this instructor/student duo – who double as a pair of lonely hearts – together for some warm, enchanting moments.
One scene includes the movie’s best song (one that this critic won’t name), as Flora and Jeff earnestly attempt a duet that perfectly describes their physical distance and emotional connection.
In addition to forging a rapport with Jeff, Flora must repair her broken bonds with Max. At first, their verbal jousts amuse. For instance, when the officer (Wycherley) questions Max, Flora comically orders her son to “answer him properly, you f*cking idiot.”
However, soon after, the language turns wickedly harsh, raw, and unpleasant. The comedy drastically fades, and moms in movie theatres will start covering their young children’s ears. Now, the film’s overall story is PG-13 material, as a mom and son attempt to fix their relationship while she also looks to brighten her outlook and dating prospects, even if the chief possibility lives across the ocean.
Unfortunately, Flora and others regularly use salty language, and our title character delves into explicit sexual talk with Ian that is vastly inappropriate for children, as pointed out by a mother (without her child in the audience) during a September Phoenix screening.
The caustic speech is understandable, given Flora’s current state of being. Still, it’s a shame that this specific reason pushes “Flora and Son” to an R-rating when the material – at its core – is more accessible to broader audiences.
Speaking of broader audiences, Carney and his team expand their musical repertoire from previous films as Max turns to a modern vehicle – his computer – to write and perform a catchy rap, “Dublin07”.
Additionally, Carney and composer Gary Clark often embrace industrial beats in the background while Flora marches across her neighborhoods to Ian’s place or her nanny gig or wondering about Max’s whereabouts.
The whereabouts, journey, and eventual arc of Flora and Max’s relationship didn’t completely click (at least to this critic), and some of their repair work pushes through a convenient third-act montage, when perhaps more precious on-screen minutes of authentic face-to-face, heart-to-heart words are needed.
Granted, parents might find Flora and Max’s exchanges more satisfying than this childless adult. Still, you might leave the theatre wanting more. Well, let the studio or an influential promoter put Hewson – Bono’s real-life daughter – and Gordon-Levitt on tour. Sign me up for that concert!
1/2 out of
Directed and written by: John Carney
Starring: Eve Hewson, Oren Kinlan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jack Reynor, and Don Wycherley
Runtime: 97 minutes
Image credits: AppleTV+