FLORA AND SON ˝
2023, R, 97 mins.
Eve Hewson as Flora / Orén Kinlan as Max / Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jeff / Jack Reynor as Ian / Sophie Vavasseur as Juanita / Kelly Thornton as HeartWritten and directed by John Carney
A thematic constant in all of writer/director John Carney's films has been the value of music and music appreciation as a form of therapy, which has been utilized to get his characters out of one existential rut or another.
This was true in his Oscar winning ONCE from 2007 and was especially prevalent in his joyous SING STREET from 2016, which told a tale of a young Irish lad in economically ravished mid-80s Dublin that decided to embrace music and make videos with his pals (it remains one of my favorite films of the last decade). The Irish-born filmmaker carries forward a similar premise in the Apple Original Film FLORA AND SON, which, to be fair, dabbles in the same kind of homebrewed storyline of a financially struggling family (this time, a mother and son) dreaming of bigger and better things via a shared love of music. FLORA AND SON is definitely not SING STREET's equal and doesn't do much to reinvent the wheel of what Carney has done better before, but it still remains a sensationally well acted and inordinately big-hearted musical dramedy that genuinely earns its feel-good sentiment.
The film also features a revelatory and star-making performance by Eve Hewson, who (it has been made abundantly clear in the press) is Bono's (that same one from U2) daughter. She plays Flora, a single and struggling mother in Dublin who spends most of her nights partying with her mates at local bars (and having one night stands with many anonymous losers) and her days trying to make a better life for her troublesome son, Max (Oren Kinlan), who's constantly getting in trouble with the law and is one indiscretion away from getting thrown in youth jail. Unfortunately for young Max, he hasn't had the best of a normal upbringing. Flora had him when she wasn't ready to be a mother at 17, not to mention that her relationship with Max's father, Ian (Jack Raynor, so good in SING STREET and solid again here in a smaller role), has been anything but rosy. To make matters worse, Flora is floundering around from one dead-end job with no future after another to barely makes ends meet. All of this translates to an unhealthily hostile relationship between mother and son. She resents him because he's a rebellious hell raiser, whereas he hates that she's got no genuine ambitions in life and doesn't seem to care about anyone or anything. Their heated arguments are refreshingly frank and vulgar, which more than earns this film its R rating.
One day changes everything for Flora. She walks through her neighborhood and sees various items being tossed in the garbage from a nearby home. One of the items is a fairly useable guitar. She yanks it out of the refuse and takes it home, feeling that it might spark her interest in something beyond inebriated partying. She also hopes that giving it to Max will take his attention away from committing petty crimes and getting taken away from her. Predictably, the always sullen Max refuses her second-hand gift, so she decides to keep it for herself, but there's just one massive problem: she has no musical abilities with instruments whatsoever. Through searching online, she discovers an American instructor named Jeff (a well cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a performance of serene and soft spoken conviction), who offers her online lessons for $20 a pop via Zoom. Things start off very rock for them (which is exacerbated by her shamelessly coming on to him during their first lesson), but after offering apologies he agrees to continue her musical education and assist her with finding her own artistic voice. While doing so and discovering a new friend to confide in daily in Jeff, Flora makes a shocking discovery that Max loves electric hip hop and pop music and is a near-prodigy in mixing music on his home laptop. Seeing a small open door of opportunity, Flora seizes on the moment to get closer to her son.
Again, it could be easily argued that Carney is spinning his creative wheels with FLORA AND SON, especially coming off of his marvelous SING STREET. His newest film is cemented in many conventions of his past films involving Irish-based characters that have been beaten down by life and use music as a cathartic outlet of release and personal healing. On paper, not much in FLORA AND SON is radical material, but I'll give Carney full credit yet again for making an infectiously winning and charming film out of material that - under the wrong kind of director - could have devolved into soap opera schmaltz. It could also be argued that Carney isn't aiming to hit another SING STREET grand slam home run here and instead is just fond of telling a small, insular story that knows what it wants to be and doesn't attempt to become something grander in the process. Flora is an interesting case study here because she's desperate to find a form of release from the pressures of motherhood while fully realizing that being a good and nurturing mother to Max is what's going to help him, in the long run, with escaping trouble with the police. FLORA AND SON is really about a mother cultivating an interest in music while accidentally finding out that her son is also a music fanatic, albeit with different tastes. The two may not be able to talk about much and frequently fail to find some sort of common ground (they're both uncomfortably anti-social on the communication front), but music draws them together and helps forge a new - and hopefully healthy - dynamic of change.
FLORA AND SON also does interesting and unexpected things with the other key relationships in the picture, in this case, Flora and Jeff, who are separated by vast distances and are on two different continents. Both are completely different personality types (not to mention that he's American and she's Irish) and their early correspondence is cringe worthy, to say the least, because of Flora's eye-rolling come-ons. But Jeff gives her a second chance and the longer the pair chat online, the more she finds herself drawn to his Zen-like peaceful demeanor (and his simple, but potent dissections of what makes music great). Jeff implores her to broaden her tastes beyond the techno-heavy dance beats at her local watering hole (Joni Mitchell is dexterously used by him to open her up to a whole new world of interest), and while he's giving her artistic guidance and broadening her appreciation of the art form, she's trying to get him to lower his own guarded defenses to talk about himself more. As FLORA AND SON progresses, it becomes a pointed commentary on how song writing, guitar playing, and an evolving musical education can not only bridge the gap between mother and son, but between two lost souls thousands of miles apart. Visually, Carney also does some creative things to mix up the repetition of having Flora and Jeff chat via laptop screens. Many times throughout the film, he magically breaks through the barriers of their Zoom meetings and has them literally sharing the same space on screen wherever Flora is at any given time. It's a great way to show their budding relationship and the increasing emotional intimacy they are mutually trying to build.
Flora and Jeff, to the film's credit, don't go down a preordained path that many will be expecting as far as romcoms go. They begin things on shaky ground, but then slowly grow to become close confidants that simmers into a semi-platonic, semi-romantic long-distance relationship that's not exactly consummated in predictable ways. Carney has too much respect for his characters for that. If there is a negative to be had with this sweet and tender subplot, then it would be that it has the unintentional side effect of rendering Max out of the picture and on the sidelines for vast patches of the film, and when his character makes a reappearance (and after some dicey choices at a local music store), it brings Flora back down to reality where she has to face the prospect of losing custody of him. Perhaps the other issue with FLORA AND SON is that it paradoxically wraps up things too neatly for Flora, Max, Jeff, and even Ian while ending the film on a refreshingly ambiguous note when it comes to what happens next to Flora and Jeff. The ending here is undeniably audience pleasing and its hard not to cheer for all of these downtrodden souls, but you can kind of sense Carney somewhat writing himself into a corner here in terms of what he really wants to do with these characters and their dilemmas.
Ultimately, I found these to be minor quibbles that didn't substantially distract from the whole, because FLORA AND SON is so exemplarily handled when it comes to balancing the film's extremely coarse edged material with its natural chords of sentimentality. The titular characters here are rarely sugar coated. They're capable of being obnoxiously mean-spirited and have venomous tongues while later showing hidden insecurities and vulnerabilities that eventually make them so endearing. If anything, Carney is a maestro when it comes to getting thoroughly authentic performances from his actors, with newcomer Hewson leading the charge playing a hot-headed and quick-tempered young woman who seems overwhelmed by motherhood and life in general. There's a huge emotional spectrum to Flora that Hewson has to embody, whether it be caustic, foul-mouthed defiance or a rascally charm or a sensitive-minded artist-to-be. That's a tall order for any actress, but Hewson is outstanding here in both the bigger and smaller moments. That, and she has a fairly angelic singing voice that she probably inherited from her father that serves her character and film well. The cast around her is superlative as well, especially Gordon-Levitt in a tricky role that requires an adept balancing act from him; he needs to be a mentor to Flora first and a potential love interest second, and he wisely never tips his performance aggressively towards the latter.