'Flora and Son' review: John Carney creates a movie you'll want to hold close
An Irish musical that makes you feel better about life, love and yourself.
An Irish musical that makes you feel better about life, love and yourself. Who needs that? If you're smart, you'll get past your wet-blanket skepticism and take a chance on the scrappy joys of "Flora and Son," now in theaters in advance of its Sept. 29 streaming debut on Apple TV+.
Kudos to writer-director John Carney, who had a 2007 breakthrough with "Once," a bittersweet musical romance whose stirring ballad, "Falling Slowly," took home the Oscar for Best Song. Like "Once," "Flora and Son" brims over with small pleasures that pay major dividends.
In 2014's "Begin Again," Dubliner Carney -- he slapped bass for The Frames until 1993 -- replayed his winning "Once" hand with a bigger budget and bigger stars (Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo). In 2016's "Sing Street," Carney traced his own young life in a 1980s New Wave band.
"Flora and Son" is Carney's first film in seven years and it's well worth the wait. It's a love story between hard-partying single mom Flora (Eve Hewson) and Max (a fine, feisty Orén Kinlan), her rebellious, thieving 14-year old son who thinks she does everything wrong, including leaving Max's dad (Jack Reynor) and filling their cramped flat with spilled ashtrays and wine bottles.
Let's pause here to praise Hewson ("Bad Sisters") whose acting runs a gamut of emotions crafted to take a piece out of you. That she does.
A setup for a soap opera? Nah. Carney is too hard-nosed for easy tearjerking. He never goes soft. And he knows in his bones how music can seep into our lives and help define them. Detractors say that Carney keeps making the same movie. I'd call it variations on a theme, a technique widely practiced by widely praised composers and filmmakers.
The plot hinges on Flora finding an acoustic guitar in the trash and trying to interest Max in lessons as a therapeutic catalyst for bonding. He refuses. So she takes them herself over Zoom with Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a failed musician giving tutorials from Los Angeles.
They chat about music. He sends her a video of a young Joni Mitchell singing "Both Sides Now" (excellent choice) and some of his own rough-around-the-edges compositions. They play and sing original songs written by Carney and Gary Clark, who collaborated on "Sing Street."
Their voices are a sweet surprise. Gordon-Levitt filters his engaging performance with just the right notes of passion and regret. And Hewson, with music in her DNA as the daughter of U2 frontman Bono, refrains from showing off to use harmony and its absence as a means to define character. Their duet to "Meet in the Middle" is a keeper. Listen up, Oscar.
The video hookup between Flora and Jeff would seem like an amorous dead end, but Carney cleverly brings them together through camera witchcraft that puts them in the same room or in a park or on a rooftop. That kind of magic is as old as musicals themselves, but Carney makes it swooningly timeless, an irresistible blend of wicked and wistful.
Still, "Flora and Son," like the title, is about the connection between a mother and troubled kid who uses his own method (dance tracks) to get on Flora's wavelength, bringing conflicting emotions together by saying it with music ("High Life," "Dublin 07"). Blending the hip and the heartfelt, the tough and the tender, Carney creates a movie you'll want to hold close.