John Carney doesn’t make musical romances. He makes romances about music, and the way music can bond people together. Sure, romantic love is part of it, but his other films have encompassed professional love, puppy love, and now a mother’s love for her son. Flora and Son is Carney’s latest low-key, crowd-pleasing human drama; a knockout film about people with a passion for music. Carney’s movies, virtually all Ireland-based with the exception of 2013’s New York-set Begin Again (quite good despite the backlash to Keira Knightley’s casting…and singing) do the things that the best songs do, which is hit you right in the heart. Considering the rousing standing ovation the film received here at Sundance following today’s world premiere, Carney has another gem on his hands.
When Carney shoots his shot, he simply doesn’t miss. Once again, his casting choices are impeccable. He’s given Eve Hewson a true breakout role as Flora, a scrappy Dublin single mom struggling to raise her angry, rebellious son Max, played by talented newcomer Orén Kinlan. Like many women in her town, Flora was a young mother. Too young to really get the most out of life at the time when you’re supposed to. So she’s become a pretty irresponsible adult, hitting the clubs and shagging random men. Flora is looking for something out there. She and Max exchange insults more than anything else, often leading to her dropping him off to stay with his dad, Ian (Jack Reynor), a former rocker who is also ill-suited to this parenting thing. None of this is helping Max, whose juvenile delinquency and life of petty crime is quickly catching up to him.
“This can’t be my narrative, living in a shoebox with a kid who hates me”, Flora tells a friend.
Carney is a big ol’ cheeseball when it comes to love and music. That’s probably one of the reasons he’s such a beloved filmmaker. Making good music, and building a strong romantic foundation, requires total commitment. Carney asks the audience to completely commit to his rosy-colored viewpoint, and to his credit he gives us plenty of reason to want to. When Flora’s gift of a guitar goes unappreciated by Max, she decides to take up the instrument for herself. This leads her to Jack (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a soft-spoken L.A. guitar instructor she found on Youtube. Flora’s instantly taken with his calming voice and kind face, but in the first $20 lesson she tarts it up way too much and nearly ruins the whole thing. When asked about her musical motivations, why she wants to play the guitar, her answers are all selfish: to look sexy, to impress people, to win back her husband.
You can probably take a guess what happens next. Over the course of many lessons, Flora not only becomes a better guitar player, but she reignites something within Jack, as well. Carney, who has always understood the connection people can make through song, reorients the framing so that Jack isn’t just a figure on Flora’s laptop screen. He reemerges by her side, or across the dinner table, so they can appear to be near one another, bonded through song. It’s a clever device that draws us further into their budding romance. After sharing a song together, Flora jokes that it was a lot like they just had sex. “It’s all very intimate, isn’t it?” And of course, she’s right. Making good music can be like making sweet love.
Meanwhile, Max is quietly becoming a junior music producer in his own right, using his computer to create hip-hop and dance tracks, mostly to impress a local girl. But it’s also a way for mother and son to find something they both can share in and act like a real family. This isn’t just a movie about Flora’s long-distance love story, otherwise it would probably need a different title.
Hewson is the real deal here. Flora is definitely rough around the edges but Hewson reveals her to be a woman who wants to be noticed for more than her body or her attitude. A fantastic scene finds Flora playing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (Carney shows the full clip, a brave decision) and seeing how easily she could command attention with a few chords of her guitar and a deeply personal song about her life. Gordon-Levitt is good here, as well, bringing Jack to life even as he’s seen mostly through ZOOM calls. Jack could be seen as pathetic (a failed musician selling guitar lessons over Youtube) under another actor’s portrayal, but JGL always has an honest quality about him that is hard to resist.
Carney isn’t doing anything he hasn’t done in his previous films. There’s echoes of Sing Street in Max’s storyline, for example, and while it’s considerably grittier, Flora’s musical journey of self-discovery is similar to Begin Again. But do we want something different from Carney? Absolutely not. We want people who bear their souls to the one person who understands them most. Carney has never been one to go with the most obvious of happy endings, but with Flora and Son he defies the easy path and delivers what is easily his most satisfying conclusion since Once. Carney has another chart-topping hit on his hands. Nobody makes movies about music like he does, and if we get one of these every few years it’ll make up for all of the mediocre music biopics in-between.