Flora and Son is John Carney Movie Music Magic

John Carney appears to have a granular understanding of the transformative power of a music – that one seemingly universal language we share created from combinations of just twelve notes. Twelve notes and the unending manner through which they can be given life. The C chord can belong to a single mum in Dublin, but that same chord also belonged to Elvis Presley. Flora (Eve Hewson) will never be Elvis, she won’t set the world on fire with her songs, but she will find a new world and a kind of redemption and peace she didn’t expect when pulling a beaten-up guitar from a skip to give as belated birthday gift to her disinterested teen son, Max (Orén Kinlan).

Flora and Son begins with Flora a young single mum tearing it up drunkenly on the dancefloor of her local club ‘Shifters’ to tacky dance music with her best-friend and enabler, Kathy (Marcella Plunkett). She ends up going home with a right sleaze who can’t wait to disappear once he remembers she has a kid. Flora remembering she has a kid seems to be a burden she’d like to dispense with. Max is rebellious and messy just like his Ma. He’s constantly in trouble with the Guard (Don Wycherley) for petty crime and absenteeism and is very close to being sent to juvenile detention. Flora has mostly thrown up her hands and given up trying to get through to Max who resents her and shouts, “You’re a daft slag who never gave anyone anything.” There is an element of truth to what he’s saying, Flora has lived for the craic and a pregnancy at seventeen to a now useless failed muso, Ian (Jack Reynor) means she had to slow down, if not grow up.

Beyond the arguments Flora’s relationship with Max is mostly contained to sarcastic exchanges and monosyllabic grunts. While she sits chain smoking and drinking wine, Max sits glued to his computer with headphones on. She makes her money as a babysitter and is not too concerned about using her sticky fingers to grab a little extra cash from her employer. Spotting an acoustic guitar in a trash skip she rescues it with the intention of giving it to Max as a potential hobby that might keep him away from the Guard. He vocally rejects it, and her, and she goes to through it out the window. Something stops her and she starts her own musical journey guided by a very philosophical YouTube guitar teacher named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who lives in Topanga Canyon, a world away from dear dirty Dublin.

Carney’s power as a filmmaker has been always to put his heart on his sleeve no matter how potentially cringeworthy that might be. He writes his characters as imperfect humans who harbour desires that they can’t quite find the words for in everyday language. It could be a lonely busker who connects with an equally lonely immigrant who begins a love affair with the songs they compose together (Once). Or it could be a love-struck teen who starts a band to impress a girl who is out of his league (Sing Street). Or it could be a man who is cynically rejecting the music industry until he comes across a shining new talent (Begin Again). Flora and Son works all those ideas into the narrative and gives the film some sturdy kitchen-sink working class drama.

Flora’s direct and sarcastic attitude takes the far more reserved Jeff by surprise. After a disastrous first Zoom lesson where he waxes lyrical about what music can do (and passes a Hoagie Carmichael song off as his own) that ends abruptly when Flora tells him to sing it again with his shirt off, a fragile but intimate relationship emerges where the guitar lessons become extended conversations about their lives and disappointments. As their relationship progresses Carney begins to drop the onscreen distance and creates a magical realist environment where the two potential lovers share the same physical space. When Jeff plays one of his original songs to Flora she outright tells him it isn’t much good. He appreciates her brash honesty and opines that he could have avoided wasting so much time trying to make it in the music business and almost destroying everything he loved if he’d learned earlier that people can smile with their mouth when listening to something they think substandard, but not with their eyes. Together they begin to rewrite his song – it still isn’t a masterpiece, but it is their cross-continental love letter.

Flora’s discovery of music (including being emotionally wrecked by Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’) leads her to discover something about Max. All the time she thought he was playing video games on his computer he was actually composing music in garage band. Like Cosmo in Sing Street, fourteen-year-old Max has developed a crush on a local girl, Samantha (Alex Deegan) who hangs out with the resident ‘gangsta rapper’ Kevin and dancing in his TikToks. Finally, it seems that mother and son have something in common beyond their penchant for trouble and disregard of the rules. Flora works with Max to create a video to his song to impress Samantha and Carney reveals how much the two actually adore each other.

Flora and Son is a film with no real bad guy. Even Ian who left Flora and Max for a younger woman who does a pretty terrible job as a father was never really much chop as a husband or a musician and acts as the film’s warning about trying to skate by on never-earned laurels. His biggest claim to fame is that his band was once on a bill with Snow Patrol. He’s not a terrible person, he’s just never grown up – something Flora was in risk of too. He misses an essential date that will impact upon Max’s wellbeing but in doing so reminds Flora that she has to step up as a mother for her son and stop trying to escape her life which is filled with non-material riches she needed to turn and embrace. She needed to know she had, and is, enough.

Of course, with a John Carney film the songs are important. Anyone waiting for Eve Hewson to open her mouth and channel her famous father will be disappointed. The movie isn’t about making Flora a superstar and discovering her untapped genius, what it is concerned with is making her realise that her desire to change her narrative and life came from her inability to open up to people and stop being all “front.” The music written by Carney and long-time collaborator Gary Clark is not supposed to set the charts on fire. It is the music that Jeff, Flora, and Max could reasonably write and perform.

Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Orén Kinlan are each charming in their roles with Hewson proving once again that she is no small talent as an actor. Kinlan is authentically Max, a teen cut from the same cloth as his mother who sometimes hates him because he reminds her so much of herself. The mother and son dynamic will perhaps always be somewhat fractious, but it is filled with a love that penetrates their beings. 

Flora and Son isn’t new territory for John Carney and that is far from a bad thing. Creating crowd-pleasing, warm, and generous movies that give both the hopeful and the jaded a chance to live via the music they encounter or create might be his stock and trade – but why shake up a formula that works? Sure, it can sometimes be a little twee, but Flora and Son will have audiences humming and possibly jotting down some lyrics they’ve always wanted to write. With only placing your fingers in a certain position, you too can own a chord.

Director: John Carney

Cast: Eve Hewson, Jack Reynor, Orén Kinlan

Writer: John Carney

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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