Writer-director John Carney is film’s resident optimist about the transformative power of musical collaboration. Each of his last four feature films has dealt with this theme. Once filtered it through a man and woman who meet on the streets of Dublin, whose not-quite-romance fuels an inspired studio session and demo tape. Begin Again, Carney’s move to Hollywood, features an unemployed record exec discovering a British songstress in a Lower East Side bar. Returning to Ireland, Carney’s Sing Street is a nostalgic flashback to the 1980s and the founding of a band at a boarding school. Staying in Ireland, Carney now gives us Flora and Son, which involves an Irish mum learning guitar over Zoom with her American guitar teacher, with a performance together destined to follow.
Carney is still chasing the critical praise of Once, even if each of his films has been appealing enough to work. Flora and Son is not going to end that chase, but it’s going to keep up his perfect record of not wasting our time, even as he flies dangerously close to too much earnest sentimentality.
That isn’t the first impression you would get of Flora (Eve Hewson), who’s far more likely to take the piss and drop a well-timed “fer fook’s sake” than engage in anything approaching earnestness. She had her 14-year-old son Max (Oren Kinlan) when she was only 17. Max’s dad, Ian (Jack Reynor), did stay involved, but Ian and Flora have recently split, and he’s taken up with a new woman. Max has taken up petty thieving, in part because his mum can’t afford the proper audio gear necessary to mix songs on his computer.
Wanting to encourage his interests, Flora picks a broken guitar off a rubbish heap and pays to have it just fixed up enough to work, as a birthday present. Seeing it as the half-assed attempt it is – it’s also a day late, as she forgot to wish him happy birthday on the actual day – Max throws it back in her face, figuratively if not quite literally. So Flora picks it up and decides she might learn to play it.
Enter Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Flora’s online guitar teacher, who is across the world in Topanga Canyon, just outside of LA. She immediately finds Jeff attractive, and succeeds at making him uncomfortable with her classically Irish brand of radical honesty mixed with slight to significant vulgarity. The feeling is ultimately mutual, though, and soon the two are harmonising and taking each other’s suggestions about how to improve each other’s creative output.
Carney has shown a sly humour in all his work – one might say you can’t be Irish without it – and he’s brought that to bear here in the creation of Flora, who is of course herself a collaboration with the actress who plays her. Hewson is game for making Flora bawdy and profane and rough around the edges. Never do we doubt that this is a working class woman who may never have had huge ambitions, but whatever ones she did have were totally derailed by the responsibilities of being even a shit mum. Flora isn’t truly shit, of course, but she did forget her own son’s birthday – and I’m not sure I’d want her babysitting my infant, which is what Flora does for money.
It’s mildly unfortunate, then, when Carney’s inner cheeseball undercuts the good character work Hewson is doing. Some of the way her relationship with Jeff develops seems like it should be from another movie, one that is trying less hard to give us an authentic central character. For example, as their Zoom sessions progress, she begins imagining she’s having a conversation with him in the same room, so the actors can interact in the same space and sometimes strum guitars at each other as their eyelashes bat. It’s not that this little sidestep into a more heightened reality doesn’t work, just that it presents Flora as more of a dreamer, when the Flora we’ve met is more of a realist.
Gordon-Levitt, for his part, plays the stereotypical California sensitive new-aged guy with an acoustic guitar, the kind who got sand kicked in his face when Brendan Fraser played him in Bedazzled. (Sorry if that’s a bit of an obscure reference. The scene is worth looking up on YouTube.) He’s supposed to be cooler than that description, but the character is written to present little friction and achieve little dimension beyond the flat screen of Flora’s laptop. We hear two of Jeff’s original songs in Flora and Son, one over the closing credits, both performed by Gordon-Levitt. The songs are certainly decent, but it’s another reminder that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova set the bar very high when they wrote the music for Once. (Hewson also has a songwriting credit on two songs, and since she’s Bono’s daughter, that tracks.)
The other character referenced in the title is the son, Max. He’s the digital to Flora’s analog, as he works on his computer looping beats and accompanying them with rudimentary rap lyrics that don’t suggest much improvement is likely. He seems Carney’s attempt to cast a wider, more 21st century net than acoustical instruments for his musical muse. It would be like if Damien Chazelle ever made a movie about some type of music other than jazz. Alas, Max’s part of the story feels like a bit of an afterthought, even though his predicament is meant to lend dramatic stakes to the story, as his criminal tendencies are pointing him toward a future in prison.
If an analysis of Flora and Son focuses more on what misses the mark than what hits, it’s only because we know Carney is capable of perfectly synthesising all the ingredients as he did in Once. Even though he’s never likely to have that sort of success again, Carney does fundamentally know how to please crowds, and Flora and Son has enough in the tank to do just that.
Flora and Son is currently playing on AppleTV+.