It is not uncommon for a filmmaker to develop aspects of their vision that seem to find their way into most if not all of their filmography. They become genuine experts of their specific craft, allowing fans to know that if they make a new film, it’s probably going to have these things in them. Rian Johnson has subversion. Martin Scorsese knows gangster epics. Michael Bay blows stuff up, Christopher Nolan has IMAX, and Steven Spielberg has built a dynasty of adventure films that mask his complex relationship with his father instead of going to therapy.
This all relates to “Flora and Son,” because John Carney knows music, and has spent his career masterfully weaving it into heartfelt stories about connection, loss, and redemption. “Flora and Son” is no exception, with Carney injecting all of his passions and themes one would expect. This is both a strength and a detriment for his latest outing, because while “Flora and Son” manages to possess all of Carney’s beautiful musical storytelling, it ranks as one of his least affecting and memorable films in his filmography.
That may sound like a bold indictment of “Flora and Son,” but it only pales in comparison to the stronger previous outings from Carney. It excels far beyond its counterparts when weighed against many other films in the similar vein (or not in some cases), which leaves it in a rather strange place. On the one hand, it fails to hold up to things like “Sing Street” or “Begin Again,” but on the other “Flora and Son” is a delightful, heartwarming, music dramedy that is sure to leave you singing with an ear to ear smile. The pure ecstasy of joy and connection really depends on your familiarity with Carney’s previous work. The more highly you regard the aforementioned films the less you’ll enjoy “Flora and Son.” If you’re not a genuine fan of Carney’s work, then “Flora and Son” will delight you fully and play on the strings of your heart and then some. “Flora and Son” is good enough to find some middle ground, recognizing that while it certainly isn’t his best film, it is impossible to not be moved by this beautiful, feel good story.
Written and directed by John Carney, “Flora and Son” follows Flora (Eve Hewson), a rebellious and no filtered Irish mother who’s life couldn’t be more in shambles. Struggling to make ends meet with no direction and an estranged husband who she still wishes she had, she also has an even more tumultuous relationship with her son Max (Oren Kinlan). A troubled teenager who mimics the rebellion of his mother and his broken home, Flora attempts to get him a guitar she found in the trash to keep him busy after his final warning before juvenile hall. Though he rejects the gift, Flora decides to take it up for herself, and meets online instructor Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to teach her. As their long distance relationship begins to blossom, Flora and her son Max may discover that music lies at the heart of their reconciliation, and they just make find love and friendship together in the process.
At its core, “Flora and Son” is simple story of long distance love and reuniting a mother and son. A simple story elevated by its musical catalyst and break out performance from Hewson. Her chemistry with Levitt is undeniable despite them very rarely appearing onscreen together, with their relationship largely being through online webcams and computers. Levitt brings his effecting, quiet charm to the role, and demonstrates that even though he’s likely filming most of his screen time from the comfort of his own home, compliments Hewson’s brash, brazen attitude incredibly well. Their relationship is sweet and feels deeply earnest as it develops. They actually create the song highlight of “Flora and Son” with their duet of “Meet In the Middle,” and it is through their lessons and budding love story that Carney is able to examine the themes of how important music is. Not just to us but for us, as “Flora and Son” wears its musical heart on its sleeve and invites you let the notes and chords sit in your soul.
Though it has a kind of “Filmed during Covid” feel, Carney expertly weaves in moments where both Levitt and Hewson share the screen despite being separated by thousands of miles. It’s a smart and effective framing that emphasizes the theme of music bringing people together and allows their relationship to feel that much more authentic. They both share in their vulnerability and discovery to each other, and it shines bright with Levitt and Hewson at the helm. “Flora and Son” may feels like it’s primarily about this love story, but Carney continually re-centers it back to the relationship between Flora and Max. Though both can be selfish, it is their love of music that truly brings them together allows them both to reunite and be redeemed. Music gives Max the mother he misses and Flora the son she wished she knew better. “Flora and Son” manages to keep this sweet instead of emotionally manipulative, and while it may be predictable it never fails to be engaging or heartwarming.
“Flora and Son” doesn’t have too much of a conflict/resolution throughline, as the key to its power lies in the mending of old relationships and the complexities of starting new ones in the most unlikely of circumstances. There’s no big climax or resolve, with Carney avoiding the “sing the song, save the world” trope that is so often prevalent in musically focused dramedies. “Flora and Son” is much more concerned with the relationships between the characters and how their love of music leads to their personal growth. This has the potential for audiences to feel a bit underwhelmed by the end, and it certainly ends abruptly with some lingering questions about the very relationships we’ve watched over the film’s runtime. But it is obvious that Carney is unconcerned with answering these questions and more concerned with the simplicity of music and love.
“Flora and Son” has all the makings of the genuine crowd pleaser. Likable and charming characters, memorable tunes, and a heartwarming center that is sure to make you feel good in the end. Is it Carneys best film? No, probably not. But is “Flora and Son” still wonderful and delightful and emotional and packed with musical moments that make you want to hug your mom and sing on the way home? Absolutely.
Now put “Juanita” on the airwaves!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Flora and Son” is now playing select theaters and steaming on Apple TV+ September 29th. You can watch the trailer below.