Flora and Son

Few people have translated the unique and powerful way music brings people together better than writer/director John Carney. His films Once (2007), Begin Again (2013), and Sing Street (2016) are not exactly musicals, in the traditional sense, but they involve characters who are transformed by their musical experiences with one another. As one may imagine, his films also feature terrific original songs, too, with Once’s “Falling Slowly” picking up an Oscar. 

In these ways, his new film, Flora and Son, fits in very nicely with his filmography, retaining the traits of Carney’s other work while breaking the mold some with characters that have a bit more of an edge to them. The movie is ultimately as earnest and sweet as the other entries in what could be considered his “Music Cinematic Universe,” but I appreciate that he made the main players here a bit more messy.

The titular character in Flora and Son, played by Eve Hewson, is a single mother in Dublin trying her best to keep her troubled teenage son, Max (Orén Kinlan), out of trouble. Money’s tight and jobs are scarce, but after leaving her babysitting gig, Flora finds a beat-up acoustic guitar that she fixes up at a local guitar shop to give to Max for his birthday. It turns out he doesn’t care to learn guitar, favoring hip-hop and electronic music, so Flora decides to take initiative herself and start guitar lessons online with California-based teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It’s a development that comes to the surprise of her ex, Ian (Jack Reynor), whose rock ’n’ roll days as a bassist seemed to be behind him, but could return if it means getting closer to his son, Max.

One of the ways Flora and Son expands on the music-centric inclinations of Carney’s previous output is the way he depicts how technology can shorten the distance between people trying to make a connection. In a funny montage, Flora scrolls through various YouTube guitar tutors and is turned off by their ostentatious openers and tiresome theatrics. She admits to Jeff that the reason she chose him as a virtual guitar teacher is because he seems more authentic than the rest of the “posers” on the Internet. Remote learning certainly existed before the pandemic and certainly still has its obstacles, but Carney reminds us how miraculous it is that we can communicate with others across the planet in real time. When you bring music into the equation, the connections can become that much more inspiring and soul-strengthening.

Carney’s films are often hopelessly romantic, and Flora and Son is no exception. Though Hewson and Gordon-Levitt initially communicate through their respective laptops, it doesn’t take long for movie magic to depict them in the same setting. It’s a smart directorial choice, allowing the two actors to break out of the limitations of a computer screen and occupy the same shared space. The duo have an easy chemistry and relay their fears and dreams with heart-on-one’s-sleeve abandon. Gordon-Levitt has a bit of a softy persona as is, and while it’s undoubtedly a welcome sight to see him singing his heart out with an acoustic guitar, it’s also exciting to see Hewson’s character soften her edges.

I’m also encouraged by how Flora and Son drives home how relatively easy it is for anybody to engage with music creation. Though Max turns down the guitar, Flora finds out he’s been making beats and crafting verses in GarageBand, a music program that comes preinstalled on all Apple computers. When he unplugs his headphones and plays a track of his through a set of Genelec speakers, Flora sees her son in a new light and even starts improv singing a hook over the music bed. It opens up a new world for them and also opens the door for some reconciliation with Flora’s ex-husband, Ian, who has been adrift after giving up his music. 

Flora and Son knows life as a professional musician isn’t for everyone, but even a little bit of musical expression in one’s life can be massively rewarding.

Coming to theaters this weekend

John David Washington and Gemma Chan star in The Creator,  a sci-fi action thriller set in a future where humans are at war with artificial intelligence, in which a former soldier finds a robot in the form of a young child who holds the key to a world-ending weapon.

Saw X, starring Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith, is a horror sequel that takes place weeks after the events of the original Saw, where the Jigsaw Killer travels to Mexico after learning of a potential “miracle” cure for his terminal cancer.

PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie, starring Mckenna Grace and Taraji P. Henson, is an animated sequel in which a magical meteor crash-lands in Adventure City and gives the PAW Patrol pups superpowers, transforming them into The Mighty Pups.