Review: Flora and Son — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Director John Carney treads the same landscape of his three prior movies — Once, Sing Street, and Begin Again —with the story of a struggling single mom in Dublin who uses music as a channel to connect with her hellraising adolescent son.

Flora and Son (David Cleary/Apple)

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Flora and Son

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

Stars: Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Orén Kinlan

Writer/Director: John Carney

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

In theaters and streaming on Apple TV+

Lots of filmmakers have created good, and even great, films about people who make music. But no one gets to the heart of music itself — the way music can, through its mere existence, change lives and enrich the world — the way writer/director John Carney does.

In his three prior movies — Once, Sing Street, and Begin Again — Carney explored the realms of outsiders and misfits who all found their lives’ grooves thanks to musical ones. He’s treading the same landscape here with the story of Flora (Eve Hewson), a struggling single mom in Dublin who uses music as a channel to connect with her hellraising adolescent son Max (Orén Kinlan).

Flora is no shrinking violet herself; early on we see she’s not above resorting to brazen theft to put food on the table. And she has an aggravating tendency to push Max’s buttons to the point where the two stand toe-to-toe in their ramshackle living room, screaming obscenities into each other’s faces.

But the two have one enduring connection: their love of music. Max spends hours on his second-hand laptop composing rap numbers, hoping to impress a young neighborhood woman who’s working as eye candy in a typically misogynist hip-hop video. Flora has just recently taken up guitar lessons, albeit short weekly internet sessions with a down-and-out Los Angeles songwriter named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Jeff is a charmer, of course, and pretty soon the two are spending as much time talking about their troubled lives as they do about C-to-F chord transitions. In a sweet, Sleepless in Seattle-worthy touch, as the pair’s emotional intimacy grows, Carney eventually places Jeff right in Flora’s apartment, sitting across the kitchen table from her.

As in the frustrated, arms-length relationship he depicted between the married songwriter and the rough-hewn busker in Once, the short-circuited electricity between these two seems to crackle. “Just kiss him already,” we want to shout — only to remember there’s a 4,000-mile gap between them.

The clouds hanging over all of this are as dark as a Dublin winter: The local police have their eyes on Max, just waiting for his next slipup to send him to juvenile hall. Flora’s ex-husband (Paul Reid), a struggling bass player, is not only an incurable cad, he’s a disinterested father who seems to take every opportunity to let Max down. And all around Flora are lifelong friends who smile to her face, but quietly dismiss her as a foolish former teenage mother who will never get her act together. Worst of all, she knows exactly what they’re thinking.

But then there’s music. Struggling with those chords, tentatively trying to match them with words that can begin to express her quiet anguish, Flora emerges from her self-inflicted shadows. Likewise, an ocean and a continent away, Jeff finds in this quirky Dubliner a reason to revisit the catalog of half-completed songs he thought he’d locked away forever. In the most ravishingly romantic scene ever concocted for two people on laptops, Flora and Jeff spend a night together on her tenement rooftop — his sunset to her sunrise — talking, singing, finishing each other’s compositions.

And just as Flora hoped, it is music that finally bridges the rift between her and Max. The only question is: Will that be enough to put the brakes on Max’s inclination to break the law?

Although it’s not structured like a traditional musical, Flora and Son depends on its songs to advance the plot. That puts an awful lot of responsibility on a film’s cast, and, as always, Carney has populated his film with actors who can sing with a uniquely conversational style. Hewson, the daughter of U-2 frontman Bono, can sell a tender ballad and later terrify you with a tear-your-lungs-out rocker. But she also provides the film’s most tender moment, leaning over a laptop, shedding a quiet tear as she watches a vintage video of Joni Mitchell strumming “Both Sides Now.” At the moment when Flora truly comes to understand the notion of singing your heart out, Hewson ushers us into the character’s soul, sharing the most private of moments.

As Jeff, Gordon-Levitt (Inception, Looper) again proves his remarkable versatility, selling himself as a guitar man whose smiling eyes betray a shattered psyche. His singing is at times hauntingly lovely; his character’s growing affection for his distant student alternately amusing and tragic.

Movies often try to drum up sympathy for juvenile delinquents, usually with little success as we just wish the little demons would get their acts together. I wanted to go that route with Kinlan’s Max, who at first seems like a generic chip-on-his-shoulder movie hooligan. But Kinlan is a better actor than that; he offers occasional windows into the boy’s vulnerability and desire to be something better than he is, if not for himself, at least for the mother he pretends to hate. It’s a nicely nuanced performance from a young actor we will see more of.

In the end, all the men in Flora’s life find their way — in one way or another — onto the stage of a Dublin pub open mic night. In a trademark Carney fadeout, the camera pulls back from the stage, wanders through the crowd, and drifts outside. As the frame rises above Dublin’s pubs and sidewalks, the crowd’s applause fading in the distance, we think we have some idea of where Flora’s future lies, but, as in life, nothing is written in stone.

But wherever she goes, we know there’ll always be the music.

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