'Flora and Son': A Heartfelt, Charming Musical
If there is anything that can be said about John Carney, it's that any film he does is going to prominently feature music in some capacity. Whether its his breakout film, Once, which centers on two aspiring musicians having a chance meeting, Begin Again, which follows a down-on-her-luck songwriter teaming up with a disgraced record executive to make an album, or Sing Street, in which a young boy starts a rock band to impress a girl, music flows throughout his entire filmography. This trend continues with his latest, Flora and Son, about a mother who uses music as a way to connect with her rebellious teenage son. On paper, this sound like it should be a slam-dunk for Carney, as this is kind of his bread and butter. But Flora and Son is a bit more complicated than his other work, and while it has some strong segments, it is hindered by its storytelling, and lacks the focus that some of his other films have.
Flora (Eve Hewson) is a single mother living in Dublin, Ireland. Her son, Max (Orén Kinlan), is a troubled teen and often engages in theft. After getting in trouble yet again, a policeman encourages Flora to find Max a hobby to keep him occupied. When she rescues a old, worn-out guitar from the trash, she finds a way to keep her son out of trouble, and a new creative outlet for herself. With the help of a Los Angeles-based guitar teacher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Flora finds the gift of music within her and begins to restore harmony to her family.
There is a bit of schmaltz to a lot of Carney's work, and this one might be his schmaltziest film yet. This isn't a bad thing for the most part, as Carney is great at using sentiment in his films, but it does undercut certain moments in this particular film. It mainly becomes an issue in the back half, as certain details are rushed in favor of reaching feel-good moments. I just wish it would have spent a little more time getting to these specific moments, as most of them don't feel completely earned. These moments are still quite nice, though, and I appreciate how openhearted of a filmmaker Carney is, but I just wanted a little more from them.
Perhaps my biggest issue lies in the film's storytelling, as there seems to be a slight disconnect between its two primary storylines. The segments that focus on Flora and her son's relationship are good, as are the ones that detail her growing relationship with the guitar teacher, but both of these elements feel somewhat undercooked in the grand scheme of things. It's as if Carney is trying to pull of two movies in one, as the film is part uplifting family drama, part rom-com. It eventually settles more into the former category, but I just wish it would have focused more on the mother-son relationship, as it is more of the emotional crux of the film, but certain plot points feel a bit too convenient, and a few moments come across as an afterthought. I could say the same about the guitar lesson scenes, as they are pretty good, but there is a large stretch where it feels like this is what the film is going to be. Personally, I'd be all for a Sleepless in Seattle-esque rom-com about an Irish single mom and an LA guitar teacher, but I don't know if it fully gels in the context of this film. If the film gave both of this plotlines a bit more room to breathe, I think it would be all the better for it. Both of these aspects are good when viewed in isolation, but I just feel they take a little away from each other as a whole.
Thankfully, the music is strong enough to make up for its plot issues. Again, John Carney uses music quite well throughout all his work, and this film is no exception. I appreciate how Carney uses different genres of music for each of his films, from the acoustic, singer-songwriter style found in Once, to the 80s rock and new wave songs of Sing Street. In Flora, he uses more of a modern pop sound, which fits the film rather well. One thing I love is that the songs genuinely feel like they are written by the characters. There is a certain DIY feel to the music, and the lack of polish on the songs, both lyrically and in the instrumentation, adds character, and feels authentic in the world of the film.
I enjoyed just about all of the songs, and I really appreciate the care that Carney and co-songwriter Gary Clark put into them. The melancholic Welcome to LA, which is sung by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, Jeff, might have some of the strongest lyrics of the bunch, and was the first song that really grabbed me in the film. Contrast that with the sillier track Dublin07, in which we are introduced to Max's rapping abilities, and where he and Flora first bond over music. Meet in the Middle has an Ed Sheeran quality to it in terms of the instrumentation, and is a tender duet between Gordon-Levitt and Eve Hewson. It's a sweet ballad that showcases the dynamic between their characters beautifully, and is rather calming. The finale track, High Life, is an absolute burst of joy that I can see being the biggest takeaway from this film. It is a high energy, feel-good song that brings all the various music styles we've heard throughout the film together, and it is a perfect note to end the film on.
In addition to the music, the heart and soul of the film is Eve Hewson's performance. Hewson captures the brashness and emotionality of Flora in a way that gives the character a fair amount of depth. I always love it when actors turn in a performance that makes you think "I know someone like that", and Hewson's performance certainly falls into this category. You can feel her desire to connect with her son, and even though the character is a bit rough around the edges, you can't help but root for her. It's such a heartfelt performance, and one that has me curious to see more of Hewson as an actor.
I also enjoyed Orén Kinlan's performance as Max, which is a bit understated, but exactly what the character needs. He truly nails the rebellious teen role, but doesn't let it feel archetypal either. This is Kinlan's first major film role, so his greenness does show at times, but he certainly does some solid work here. Jack Reynor is also good, but I wanted to see more of him. I was excited when he first showed up, but the film doesn't seem to know what to do with him. But Reynor makes the best of it, and still has his moments to shine. I'll admit that I was a little worried about Joseph Gordon-Levitt's involvement here. He is a talented actor, and his general earnestness makes him a prime candidate to be in a John Carney film, but I was worried that his role in the film would squander him. When his first couple of scenes involved him giving guitar lessons over Zoom, I was definitely concerned. These moments are awkward by design, but I was worried that every scene with him was going to be like this, and that these moments would grind the film to a screeching halt. Thankfully, the film finds a way to include him without limiting him to a computer screen, and when it does this, his character comes alive a bit more. Gordon-Levitt is a gentle presence in this film, and he has this slight air of pretentiousness that is a bit cheesy, but ultimately works for the film. The scenes with him and Hewson are great, and I honestly would watch a full-blown rom-com with the two of them as the leads.
There's no denying that Flora and Son is a cheerful little film, but I just wish it was a bit more fully realized than it actually is. It has a good premise and it does do a fair amount with it, but I wanted a little more from it overall. That said, the music is quite good, and Eve Hewson's performance definitely carries much of the film. This is the type of film that is worth watching for a nice boost of serotonin, as it is such a delightful watch. It may not be as cohesive as Carney's best work, but it is a nice film nonetheless.