The ability to romanticize music – especially its ability to empower and transform people’s lives in realistic ways – on screen in auditory and visual movie masterpieces isn’t an easy task for many filmmakers. But Oscar-winning filmmaker and lyricist, John Carney has expertly done just that over the past decade-and-a-half with his best musical features, including Once, Begin Again and Sing Street.
In his latest movie, the musical comedy-drama, Flora and Son, which he wrote, directed, produced and created the original songs for, Carney has once again naturally interwove powerful tracks and musical performances into the story. The titular protagonist struggles to overcome her dissolute habits by reviving her faith in expressing her emotions through writing and performing intimate, soul-bearing tunes.
Flora and Son follows struggling Dublin-based single mom Flora (Peabody Award-winning actress, Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2’S Bono and Irish activist, Ali Hewson) as she contemplates what to do about her rebellious teenage son, Max (Orén Kinlan). Encouraged by the police to find Max a hobby, Flora tries to occupy him with music after she restores a beat-up, second-hand acoustic guitar she finds in a dumpster.
Determined to also learn how to play the guitar, Flora connects with a L.A.-based musician, Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose videos she discovers on YouTube. Flora responds to Jeff’s ad for affordable weekly guitar lessons, and as they star working together, they begin to also form a personal friendship.
While Flora also initially hopes the lessons will help reunite her with Max’s father, Ian (Jack Reynor), from whom she’s she’s getting a divorce, Jeff’s guidance slowly helps her discover the transformative power of music in all aspects of her life. As she embarks on a journey toward a new harmony through her guitar lessons, Flora most importantly learns how to form a new bond with her son that she’s never had before.
Carney has crafted a signature storytelling style throughout his career as a filmmaker, which highlights how characters who are struggling to find their place in the world begin to realize that they can use their musical prowess to feel empowered. That storytelling technique has found the scribe-helmer success with the Academy Award-winning Once, Oscar-nominated Begin Again and Golden Globe-nominated Sing Street.
By mimicking his previous movies’ standard story development of characters finding their voice through creating their own songs, Carney didn’t infuse Flora and Son with the same sense of originality. But his latest engaging film still thrives through its emotionally relatable, and musically stylistic, sense of storytelling.
Flora and Jeff naturally connect over feeling as though they didn’t succeed in bonding with their respective children and former spouses, as well as not immediately succeeding in their musical pursuits. They funnel their feelings into tracks that bear their souls, but need time to be worked on until they garner lyrical and instrumental finesse.
Carney, along with Flora and Son‘s songwriter, Gary Clark, crafted an emotionally tantalizing score that not only emphasizes Flora and Jeff’s lack of deep connection with their families, but also their amateur musical experience. The comedy-drama’s songwriters deliberately – and effectively – crafted lackluster original tunes for the guitar teacher and student when they first begin playing together.
But in Carney’s typical filmmaking fashion, he approached crafting the original songs for his latest movie with Clark, who he also collaborated with on Sing Street, through Flora and Jeff’s growing attraction to each other. While their seemingly growing romance is led in unexpected directions throughout the film’s narrative, the tunes they work on together are emotionally captivating and memorable.
The growing personal and professional compatibility the duo becomes even more passionate Jeff teaches his new student a variety of musical genres through tracks by Tom Waits and Hoagy Carmichael.
But one of the standout scenes in Flora and Son is when the usually brazen titular protagonist finally embraces her vulnerabilities while she watches a video that Jeff sent her of Joni Mitchell singing Both Sides Now. Flora finally realizes how fragile life can be, and that she should let her guard down and be honest about her true feelings with the people she cares about.
Hewson and Gordon-Levitt further emphasize their characters’ true emotions and desires throughout the comedy-drama by being committed to performing their own vocals on the feature’s tunes, which are mainly ballads. While their characters’ lyrics emphasize their emotional struggles and triumphs, the actors’ vocals are still endearing and modest.
Flora and Son succeeds in its emphasis of the life-affirming journey the titular protagonist embarks on through her guitar lessons, as it shows that she’s determined to find her true sense of purpose and connect with Max. In the beginning of the movie, Flora doesn’t know her own worth, and mostly blames the world for her troubles. Hewson emphasizes her character’s insecurities by amping up her coarse, raunchy self-righteousness. Flora also balances her sharp-edged fury at the world with her at-times buried tenderness that makes her an overall sensible protagonist.
But Jeff also emphasizes music’s power to affect people emotionally. During his limited screen time during his character’s Zoom sessions with Flora, Gordon-Levitt effortlessly channels the meaningful sentiment that shape Carney’s films – that life is worth living when people find the right relationship to inspire them. The actor also gives Jeff an understated charm that creates an opposites-attract dynamic with the brash vitality that Hewson infuses into Flora.
The performers’ dynamic is so palpable that Apple is already considering submitting Hewson and Gordon-Levitt for Academy Award consideration, in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories. The distributor is also contemplating which of the film’s 18 original tracks to submit for Best Original Song.
Flora and Son is another prime example of Carney’s signature musical comedy-dramas that’s steeped in emotional realism. While not everyone turns to learning how to play an instrument in order to express their emotions through music while they’re struggling in life, Hewson and Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of Flora and Jeff’s equally prevalent pain and joy is powerfully relatable.
Carney and Clark’s natural ability to also interweave the musicians’ original tunes into the story with an emotional and humorous spontaneity throughout the movie is also powerfully noteworthy. The film’s score also highlights the characters’ journey as they navigate their vulnerable path from despair to belief in an honest way that leaves a lasting impression.
Flora and Son is now playing in select New York theaters. The movie will have its global premiere this Friday, September 29 on Apple TV+.
Here’s the trailer of the film.