John Carney’s Flora and Son is a Dublin-based ballsy fairytale about discovering music as a remedy for a young mom and her teenager’s wounded relationship.
When I refer to Flora and Son as a ballsy fairytale, what do I mean by that? I mean that, compared to calling it a film, it felt like a more fitting description to use. Irish screenwriter and director John Carney decided to portray the mundane life of a fractured Irish family in all of its glory and explicit language. Then he elevated it with music, and it brought forth the beauty that is Flora and Son.
The characters of Flora (Eve Hewson), her rebellious son Max (Orén Kinlan), her detached ex Ian (Jack Reynor), and her new guitar teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) all use music as a soundtrack to their journeys in the film. Over the course of an hour and a half, they all realize it’s a vessel that can also bridge the gaps between them.
On the forefront, we have Flora, and we have Max, and we have the thousand walls they’ve built around themselves. What follows is a sensitive exploration of music’s ability to break these walls down and help both the mother and the son find not only themselves but each other, too.
The film follows a single mother’s daily life as she raises a rebellious teenage boy while grappling with her own anger and regrets. In order to keep her son out of correctional facilities, she is advised by the police to find him a hobby. An acoustic guitar thrown in the dumpster presents itself as an opportunity, but when her son refuses, she decides to take up learning the guitar herself. She stumbles upon Jeff, a guitar player from LA who teaches classes online. The rest is magic, told through Zoom duets and homemade music videos.
John Carney’s movie has a lot to offer and a lot to say, and it goes beyond just the lyrics of the gently crafted guitar tunes that take us from one act to the next. It’s in the dialogue, too. It snaps at you through the screen, it’s bold, and it never leaves room for dull exchanges between characters. Some of them have some bold things to say about motherhood—gnarly things that people steer away from, especially when it comes to young motherhood.
Flora and Son manages to achieve so much character development in a relatively short length for a film of its genre and subject matter. It feels like there’s a faint but tangible difference in the characters with every next scene we cut to. It’s a kind of pacing that might not appeal to all audiences, but, thanks to it, the storytelling feels entirely purposeful and full of life. Life is bursting out of the characters in the way that Flora and Son is almost bursting out of its short runtime, like it’s begging to be longer, but it doesn’t need to be.
Every scene between Flora and Max creates a genuine energy that convinces you their relationship cannot be measured by the rude remarks they throw at each other, it’s something you feel in the music that they share. Similarly, between Flora and Jeff, the unspoken romance lives in the guitar strums.
Flora is a flawed mother. It’s clear to the viewers the ways she’s flawed and what coping mechanisms she uses as a shield. You can sense her change through the change in how she treats her son. In each next scene with him, she feels subtly different.
Jeff is wise, warm, ready to spew metaphors and life truths in your face, but the writing lets those lines breathe in a way that doesn’t feel forced or unmotivated. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s performance is quietly memorable. In the little details of his acting choices, Jeff’s flaws come to the surface, his own regrets and insecurities challenged by Flora.
Any critiques I have for Flora and Son would be targeted towards the first act, as it struggles with a clunky set-up and an unsatisfactory introduction to the protagonists. While I can understand, to an extent, why we are introduced to Flora in the way that we are, it feels rather purposeless in the bigger picture.
Max’s character is spoon-fed to me only through dialogue the first time I meet him. For a son who is supposed to be this juvenile delinquent, it would’ve been more effective to see him prove it through action instead of finding out that information the easy way. Not letting us in on Max’s mischievous behaviors until the second act is a missed opportunity for a compelling exposition on his character. Thankfully, the movie quickly regenerates its lost momentum and becomes more trusting in its audience.
The following paragraph contains SPOILERS:
The film makes unexpected choices at some turns in its development. I loved seeing Flora not going to LA to visit Jeff, even though she kept talking about it, and that’s where the film felt like it was going. She chose not to abandon her son, even though nothing was stopping her. The parents talked about showing up together in court for Max, but it never happened. It challenges the way audiences are taught to read cues in dialogue and, at the same time, it makes it more human.
We all talk about plans and ideas we want to make happen, but we don’t always follow through, and that’s the power of the imperfections of our characters, who can be so unlikable at times, but you understand them and you find yourself smiling at their small victories.
Although the film lacks the privileges of a powerful introduction, it certainly makes up for it if you give it a chance to grip you. Flora and Son writes its own song about motherhood, and it’s not afraid to sing it loudly to the world – unfiltered, whimsical, and wholeheartedly Irish.
Flora and Son is now available to watch on Apple TV+.