Filmmaker John Carney has a niche. Since breaking out with 2007’s bittersweet, music-driven Once (an adaptation of which went on to become a massive Tony-winning success on Broadway), the Irishman has made a name for himself crafting films that navigate the complications of the human heart through music, notably in 2016’s practically perfect Sing Street, an ’80s coming-of-age tale infused with a killer original soundtrack. Carney returns to the intersection of humanity and harmonies in Flora and Son, about a young mother and her teenage son on the brink of falling apart before they discover a common bond in crafting original songs. Starring Eve Hewson (Tesla, The True Adventures of Wolfboy) as Flora; Orén Kinlan as her unbothered, angsty fourteen-year-old son Max; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the L.A.-based guitar teacher Flora connects with via Zoom; and Jack Reynor (Sing Street) as Max’s sort-of absent, one-time musician father, Flora and Son is the kind of film that leaves one feeling better after having seen it, the kind that comes up at cocktail parties, over water coolers, in the school pick-up line: “Have you seen it? You must see it. It’s lovely.”
Set in present-day Dublin, Flora and Max live in a small, motel-like apartment complex in the city where he usually attends school but maybe doesn’t and she works as a nanny for a posh family in a neighborhood far from their own—if not geographically, certainly economically. She’s still young and a bit of a party animal, and he’s causing the kind of trouble teens cause when their parents aren’t watching too closely. When the local community officer warns them both that Max is close to being sent off to juvenile detention, Flora brings home an acoustic guitar she’s hoping will give him something productive to do with his time. But Max is more interested in synth sounds and digital production, so Flora picks up the guitar herself, connecting with Jeff (Gordon-Levitt) online for virtual lessons at $20 a pop.
With a small but focused cast (rife with exceptional performances all around), Carney has room to endear each of them to the audience, even in their flaws and struggles. Flora is all defenses and skepticism as she sits down for each guitar lesson; it’s easier to flirt with Jeff than to let herself suck at something new that will probably just end up amounting to nothing anyways, like everything else in her life in which she’s invested. Max is firmly in the nothing-matters-anyways phase of teenage-dom, those years where it’s very not cool to express emotion of any kind, even if underneath it all he’s just another sensitive kid who wants to be liked and accepted. And though it’s usually through glimpses on a laptop screen (though Carney employs one of the loveliest effects in a film all year at key moments), Jeff doesn’t have anything figured out either, a frustrated songwriter who’s trying to recapture his love for the craft by removing himself from the rat race of it all.
Yet together, these imperfect people make beautiful music, both literally and figuratively. Per usual for the filmmaker, the original music in Flora and Son (written by Carney and Gary Clark) is actually wonderful (not always the case for films that feature music), and the songs deserve a life of their own. But it’s the filmmaker’s sharp appreciation of human nature that elevates the film into the remarkable, reflecting back to us what’s possible in our relationships when we don’t give up—on ourselves or each other. There’s something to be said for filmmakers who experiment with each new project, exploring new genres or subject matter; and surely, Carney is a talented enough storyteller that none of his films are exactly the same – far from it. But there’s no denying he’s found a sweet spot for work that plumbs into all the various facets of interpersonal connections, from the hardest struggles and toughest times to the romance of possibility and the promise of a life that’s more magical, joyful and fulfilling than even our wildest dreams.
Flora and Son is now in theaters and streaming on AppleTV+.