Anyone can decide to become a musician. That doesn’t mean they’re set for success, but measuring that definition is different for everyone. Writer-director John Carney, who has more than proven his ability to create wondrous and creative films about music with Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street, returns with another film that again captures the magic of making music. Though it does include a romance plot line, its focus is on a familial relationship, that of a young mother and her teenage son.
From the very first scene, Flora (Eve Hewson) is out of control. She drinks wine and smokes all day long, and has a difficult rapport with her son, Max (Orén Kinlan) and an adversarial relationship with his father (Jack Reynor). Her attempt to get her son a guitar – out of a dumpster – as a birthday gift results in him turning it down and her deciding on a whim that she should learn how to play. After enrolling in online classes with a very patient teacher named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), she slowly begins to take what she’s doing seriously and give songwriting a chance, which in turn helps her find an unexpected way in to connect with her son.
Carney’s script is peppered with lines that are nearly as memorable as his song lyrics, like Flora declaring “This can’t be my life. This can’t be my narrative” and “I was always the class clown. I made fun of the teacher because someone had to.” While everyone gets their share of worthwhile things to say, Flora’s dialogue is particularly fabulous. Even when she’s giving someone a compliment, it sounds like an insult thanks to Hewson’s hilarious delivery. It’s fun to watch her slowly start to give in to sentimentality and to realize that mocking everyone around her doesn’t always get her the results she wants.
Max is a vibrant character in his own right, one strike away from juvenile detention and interested only in making music. When Flora hears what he’s done and finds out that he’s trying to impress a girl, she eagerly offers to record a video for him. It’s a blast to see them working together on a surprising shared passion and to little glimmers of happiness emerge from their rare positive interactions.
Another winning aspect of this film is the sessions that Flora and Jeff have. In one of their early meetings, it feels as if the distance between them – Jeff is on Zoom in Los Angeles and Flora is in Dublin – has disappeared, and at just that moment, the computer vanishes and Jeff is right there next to here. What could be a sappy cinematic device turns out to be quite effective in conveying the close bond and mutual respect that they develop for each other, even if it begins with Flora constantly coming on to him and pushing him to open up about himself rather than letting him actually try to teach her.
Flora and Son works on so many levels, and at a Q & A following the premiere, Gordon-Levitt shared that he had never had a filmmaker invite him so “intimately and spontaneously into the process of writing a song.” That collaborative nature is evident in the finished product, and Carney clearly has a way with both making music and working with exceptional actors. Gordon-Levitt is endearing, Kinlan is a breakout star, and Hewson is nothing short of amazing, bringing such hilarity and spunk to an unforgettable personality who still manages to feel real. With the aid of great music, this movie hits all the right notes, marking yet another triumph for Carney.
Flora and Son is playing in the Premieres section of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute