The musical dramedy hadn’t been more optimistic in the modern era than in the hands of writer/director John Carney. His dual knack for penning dialogue and lyrics like they’re of the same woven cloth hasn’t faded, it just went to TV around pandemic times. Circling back to a big screen production after seven years off could leave anyone a little rusty. Carney proves that to be the exception, revisiting the playful, redeeming side of music as indirect therapy in Flora and Son. He’s approached the idea of repairing relationships on the verge of blossoming or self-destruction before; Sing Street, Begin Again, and Once all succeeded with their variations of the same idea, each wearing a loose-fitting pair of “romance googles.” This time, they’re thrown away to focus more on a fractured family unit, and how artistic expression is key to unlocking their dirty laundry, and the subsequent moment to heal.
Flora (Eve Hewson) is at a stark crossroads with her life at the other side of 30. She struggles in playing good mom to her son Max (Orén Kinlan), a delinquent teen pushing back against the trouble of her parents’ separation with a string of ill behavior. She’s worse in holding onto romantic relationships, dropping them far before they’re worth anything. And her relationship with ex-husband Ian (Jack Reynor) has only grown frostier over time, both factors pulling them further apart.
With Max one strike away from a stretch in juvie, Flora knows action must be taken. In between short-lived joe jobs, she finds and refurbishes a beat-up acoustic guitar in the hope her son can make a hobby out of it. Instinctively, he rejects it. Flora holds onto it, nonetheless, figuring it could go to clever use. Her hunches lead her to Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a work-starved musician who agrees to teach her the basics of strumming that instrument via video chat. Despite the 4,000-mile distance between them – Jeff’s making ends meet in LA, Flora strikes a friendly rapport with the experienced guitarist, to the point of crushing.
Weirder things have happened on screens recently. Without needing to use the pandemic as a backdrop or a tone-setter, Carney embraces the fragility and chaos of what’s been our new normal, with guidance and education accessible from anywhere. That alone is real proof of storytelling’s universal nature, and his gameness to nominally readapt that is a welcome sight. Same for his natural eagerness to write for a strong-willed character approaching the verge of emotional frailty. Flora’s mildly vain impasse, her very litany of human flaws almost writes itself. Carney could draft a long-form novel, and it would barely scratch the surface. For all her indecision in life, she’s still a compelling lead mirroring modern-day fragility.
In Hewson’s hands, body language, and vocal chops (a guarantee as Bono’s eldest kid), it’s never schmaltzy or despairing. How she approaches Flora, with Carney momentarily guiding her in focus, is very self-affirming, if not also atoning for her character’s own behavior. Like Max, she’s no spring chicken; she just happens to be more open to accepting humility as a constant than her son, often with a fiery edge to lighten the mood and avoid plunging too deep into familiar plot territory. The kid is a bit cockier with entrusting music as a love language, calling back to Sing Street – and to a lesser extent, the antihero in High Fidelity, to mixed results that forebode a change in routine. And, most quizzingly, a third-act swing testing the film’s tone at its most engaging.
Carney’s not the type to make the waters choppy. When he does, it’s for a controlled reason, and he knows how to sustain consistency with mood and allure. As much as he is reshaping the straightforward working-class family drama into a real-world pantomime, he’s also cautiously bending the rules of a standard romance. Channeling his inner George Stevens, he delicately leans into the fantasy of it all, while not ignoring the gravity of circumstances around Flora and Jeff. They are prompt to make each other a little better with every interaction, their defenses crumbling as the invisible barrier between them splits open. The film then opens to its broadest perspective; in others’ hands, it would be a needless distraction, but Carney works to aid its flow. Often effortlessly, at that.
When Hewson and Gordon-Levitt share space as they do in select sequences – shot with a brooding flair by John Conroy (The Miracle Club), it’s the peak of that graceful spate. It’s almost alarming how effusive, even impudent their chemistry plays out on screen. I’m sure I was skeptical whether their personality types could link together. Before long, through the former’s efforts, they’re bonded like glue, while still distanced. That obvious physical separation is soon succeeded by an emotional gap. Even that finds solace and resolution, if only temporarily, by way of innate charm and ego control. Elsewhere, Kinlan’s anarchic quirks roll about in equal share, jabbing at Hewson’s resolve with flame war snark and a tender heart. He’s genuine to break past the stereotypical “troubled teen” motif. I do wish Reynor could’ve done similar work with the “divorced dad” we’ve seen times before; he was too comfortable, shuffling in and out with little distinction.
Carney, as a musical-thinking auteur, creates a discordant melody, starting with the chaos and contention of a broken family. As he goes along, that sense of harmony builds into a healing crescendo with an acoustic pop-rock bite to change the tone of life in retrograde. While not a radical turnaround – that’s simply not his style, Flora & Son finds the director taking a new spin on his familiar angle to love, without it being explicitly romantic. It is messy, fractured, impassioned in the case of parental support, and especially humbling when it belongs to someone in search of a readjustment. The latter two are all Hewson’s doing, cementing a complex portrayal of adulthood. It’s a daring balancing act that pays off with lyrical resonance, not running away from reality, but happily sprinting to compose a new dream. (A-; 4/5)
Flora & Son is currently streaming on Apple TV+, and locally playing a limited engagement at Kingston’s Firehouse Theater; rated R for language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use; 97 minutes.