John Carney knows that even a familiar tune can sound different if sung the right way. The Irish director has given us several sentimental musical driven films such as “Once” (which won the best original song), “Begin Again”, and the cult like favorite “Sing Street.” All of Carney’s film’s represent communities trying to find the right words, but most turn to music to do so. His latest FLORA AND SON is his most mature even if it deals with a titular character who wishes she could have stayed young forever. FLORA AND SON may be driven by the usual Carney music, working class atmosphere and heartwarming endings, but it also took the Sundance world by storm. With a premiere that left the crowd singing and clapping along, this critic is proud to admit that it won me over within the first few frames, never let go and in the end gave me one of the most joyous theatrical experiences I’ve had in years. FLORA AND SON has plenty of surprises up its sleeve but its biggest is the star is born moment for Eve Hewson. Hewson may be new to some, but with FLORA AND SON she radiates off the screen with both her pain and excitement. Here is a performance that wants to be remembered in a film that is impossible to forget. So strap on your guitar and play along.
Flora (Hewson) is having trouble with it all. A working class nanny to a wealthy family, Flora then comes home to her teenage son Max (a hilarious Oren Kinlan in his first starring role). Their welcomes are never greeted with hugs or even small glances, but instead yelling and constant “fuck yous.” Max is always getting in trouble for petty theft crimes, and Flora is at her wits end. But Flora herself doesn’t make it easy for Max, she is bothered by every little movement he makes and spends more of her time out clubbing with her friend then trying to connect with Max. She had Max young and her longing for her years back is well on display. But what may bother her the most is the fact that Max seems to like spending time with his father, a washed out barely music star Ian (Jack Reynor). Ian and Flora may not be officially divorced but they clearly haven’t enjoyed one another’s company in years. Reynor is always a treat to see and gives a balanced performance of comedy and empathy to Ian even as he continuously brags about how he’s still a rock star because he once shared a lineup with Snow Patrol. None of this matters to Flora she needs to find a way to connect with her son, or possibly lose him to his small crimes and the law forever. Carney isn’t a stranger to making his characters find beauty in “ugly” places, it’s a cute idea that is brought back here when Flora finds a somewhat well kept guitar in the trash and brings it home to learn to play herself. After a hilarious segment of pining through YouTube guitar tutorials she stumbles upon the handsome Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Jeff a failed musician living in L.A. is anything but prepared for Flora who instantly (and after a few drinks of wine) professes her attraction to Jeff prompting him to end their session early and leave any hopes of musical success behind.
Carney clearly wrote the character of Flora for his mother (later confirmed by the director himself in a post Q&A), and Flora represents all the determination and lost dreams our mothers carry. After her failed first lesson with Jeff, Flora is determined to get her lessons going and with a little bit of convincing through a hilarious if not cringey email Jeff agrees with some conditions (no wine). These segments between Hewson and Gordon-Levitt may be where the film’s romance lies but there are bigger ideas in store. Flora states she isn’t a musician, but it is clear she has a love for it. Jeff on the other hand wants to show Flora that there is much more to music than her love for James Blunt’s one hit wonder. The way songs are played can be changed in an instant just by slowing down the notes or softening your voice. They are tender moments, but because of the world apart are only done via Zoom, but thankfully Carney has a sweet little way to make it all feel in one place adding a strength to the performance by Gordon-Levitt who is at his most charming but also vulnerable. This isn’t a fantasy man, but instead a man with great faults and has given up on a possible second chance.
FLORA AND SON however wouldn’t be anything without “the son” part. Max has avoided some trouble for the time being, but mainly because his eyes are set on a girl who would rather be in a trashy TikTok music video than look his way. Kinlan as Max also has the making of a major star, he has the innocence down pact but when Max opens up to some new ideas we really get to see the confidence and bravado that Kinlan has as a performer. Here is a young star that will easily lead many more films, hopefully soon, because he is an absolute delight. As Max and Flora start to see each other in a new way and through their music, the film allows Hewson to show a side of motherhood that seems common, but in fact is all too rare. That true connection and a mother’s endless love for her child is the driving force behind the film. It is also a tribute to all those single mothers that have put everything for their children, but what makes FLORA AND SON stand out from the usual is it is not afraid, and with Hewson’s performance, to say that this shit is hard, and life would have been a lot easier if she never had the baby to begin with, but yet as mothers they fight through all for their children. Far too many movies today ignore that reality and instead go for the whole “you were never a mistake” attitude. It feels cheap and unfaithful to the amazing women you are trying to honor. Instead Carney and Hewson let Flora be raw, we see her fuck ups and the consequences they have in store. Hewson herself may always have us rooting for Flora, but as a performer she is able to expose Flora’s shortcomings and ask us to understand but not always forgive. It is a very fine line that the wrong performer could mess p in an instant; Hewson is not that performer. It’s almost nauseating to talk about next year’s award season, but let it be said here first; Eve Hewson the best actress campaign starts now.
Even as her music skills strengthen and her cross world romance with Jeff finds a spark, Carney doesn’t want this to be the star crossed love of single mom and washed up player to be where it all leads. A director who enjoys the surprise wants us to feel invested in not just every character we meet, but also their town as a whole. He knows Flora’s story is one of many and wants to remind us that music is driving this town. A town lost on success but full of dreams. A town where good people are trying their hardest every fucking day and with very little of a thank you sent to them. When FLORA AND SON finds its way to its pitch perfect ending (Although not the one you may be expecting) you can’t help but feel your heart racing and probably jumping all around. Is it it over the top sentimentality, no. Will it bring the water works? Absolutely. Be prepared to walk out of the theater and call your mom or mother figure in your life almost instantly. Carney never manipulates but is set out to bring you those feelings. FLORA AND SON is a reminder to always create art with the ones you love, and to no denial yes it is really hard out there, but if you find the right note you can make anything sound beautiful.
FLORA AND SON PREMIERED AT THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL. IT HAS BEEN BOUGHT BY APPLE FOR A FUTURE RELEASE