Flora and Son (2023)

Charming ‘Flora and Son’ makes beautiful music

Few meld song and film as seamlessly as John Carney. That’s because the writer-director knows well how to excite and exploit the senses of sight and sound in a manner that stirs the heart and soul. He makes it appear so effortless when it’s most certainly not. That’s what I find most remarkable about his work. And he does it so consistently, from his Oscar-winning masterpiece, “Once,” to the more recent “Sing Street,” movies that are quintessentially Irish, but global in their appeal.

It’s no surprise that Carney conjures the magic again with “Flora and Son,” a thoroughly charming tale of an angry, frustrated mam who “still hasn’t found what she’s looking for.” That slightly altered line, of course, was co-written by Paul David Hewson, aka Bono. So, how fitting that his equally talented daughter, Eve, should play this lost, uncertain woman of meager means. She’s called Flora, but her delinquent teenage son and doltish ex-husband have more colorful, unprintable, names to bestow upon her. Clearly, marriage and motherhood are not her thing. But what is?

That’s where Carney begins. But the thrill emanates from where he winds up. And our convoy on this eventful journey is Hewson, best known as the youngest homicidal sibling in the gleefully macabre “Bad Sisters.” If you’ve seen it, you know she’s a sharp, versatile actress of tremendous range. But it doesn’t begin to prepare you for her marvelous turn as Flora.

First seen stumbling drunk through a pub in search of her latest one-night stand, Flora is a mess inside and out. And she blames everyone but herself. For a brief moment, you say to yourself, “Here we go again, yet another tale of a wayward woman about to be rescued by some hunky, gullible man.” But you’d only be half-right. Like he did with the young lovers in “Once,” Carney flirts around the margins of romance in favor of the infinitely more powerful connection of literally making music together. Flora’s instrument is a battered acoustic guitar she plucks from a Dumpster. A few repairs and she believes she’s found the perfect (belated) birthday gift for her perpetually pissed-off son, Max (newcomer Orén Kinlan). He’s going to love it, right? Nope, he’s actually indignant, sarcastically asking Mam if she expects him to become an overnight Ed Sheeran.

A better question might be: Who’s the axe really for? Our answer comes once Flora starts Googling guitar lessons and eventually stumbles upon Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Jeff, a Topanga Canyon dreamboat whose own rock ’n’ roll dreams practically destroyed him. He’s charming as all heck, but jaded to the point he greets Flora’s enthusiasm with a few bars of cynicism. Then he plays her Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” crooning in a yearning, soulful tone. She’s smitten, we’re smitten and it’s an instant long-distance love affair made possible by the miracle of Zoom.

Again, you say to yourself, “I know where this is going.” And once more you’d be dead wrong. Carney isn’t about to settle for such triteness. He’s onto something much more intriguing. Namely, the transformative power of modern technology at a time when it’s being met with the greatest of suspicion. But not by Max. Unbeknownst to Flora, he’s composing raps on his laptop. Well, whenever he’s not meeting with his probation officer. Once Flora discovers her son’s secret talent, it’s only a matter of time before – guitar in hand – she seizes the opportunity to reach her son through their shared love of music.

The result is a little too good to be true. And you’d be tempted to brand the movie Carney Corn. You’d be right, of course. But you go with it owing to Carney’s uncanny ability to make the absurd and the impossible plausible. You even surrender to the whimsy of Flora’s imagination transporting Jeff from California to sitting opposite her in Dublin. It’s a clever sleight of hand that injects the intimacy lacking in their solely cyber romance.

More importantly, it works. Ditto for the host of original songs, a couple of which are definite award contenders every bit as good as the Oscar-winning “Falling Slowly” from “Once.” Their power is matched by the chemistry Hewson generates opposite both Gordon-Levitt and the pudgy, adorable Kinlan. It’s a spark not quite as intense between her and Jack Raynor as Flora’s ex, Ian, like Jeff, a failed musician. But again, it works.

In all cases, her male castmates take a significant backseat to Hewson, who possesses that certain something that elevates a great actress to a luminous movie star. You notice it most in a wonderful scene in which Jeff emails Flora a YouTube video of Joni Mitchell performing her classic “Both Sides Now.” Carney and his DP, John Conroy, fix the camera on Hewson’s expressive face as Flora absorbs the beauty and the gravity of the song, with her translucent blue eyes melting into pools of emotion. You can’t help but tear up along with her. It’s that impactful.

I would not expect anything less from Carney, who’s emerged as the Vincente Minnelli of the lo-fi musical. But Carney does Minnelli one better via the subtlety with which he incorporates songs into the narrative. They blend as naturally as the abundance of truthful dialogue spoken by characters who’ve been beaten down by a world increasingly void of compassion. Their only outlet is raising their voices, not in anger, but in the cathartic melodies of song. It’s the one means they have of being heard. And like Carney, they make it resonate with profundity and sorrow while leaving just enough room for the faintest of hope.

Movie review

Flora and Son

Rated: R for brief drug use, sexual references, language throughout

Cast: Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Orén Kinlan and Jack Raynor

Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

Runtime: 96 minutes

Where: On Apple TV+

Grade: A-

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