After taking a break from feature filmmaking for nearly eight years, John Carney returns with a familiar tune: a cozy Irish musical about the ways in which music can bond people together, the joy of creation, and the pleasure of someone unpacking their soul, all with that lovely Irish lilt. To premiere his “Flora and Son,” Carney has also returned to familiar ground, bringing the low-key and lo-fi charmer to Sundance, where both his breakout hit “Once” and his crowd-pleasing gem “Sing Street” debuted in previous years. Given the spontaneous clap-a-long and rapturous standing ovation the film earned during its first screening, Carney’s instinct to deliver this particular winner to this particular audience was bang-on.
Set in working-class Dublin, Carney’s latest concerns the messy lives of the eponymous Flora (a wonderful Eve Hewson), her troubled young son Max (a very charming Oren Kinlan in his first starring role), and Flora’s soon-to-be ex-husband Ian (returning “Sing Street” star Jack Reynor). Nothing has quite worked out for this fractured family the way they’d hoped, and it will take something special – like a tossed-off guitar that Flora literally fishes out of the garbage – to start them on a road to healing, all set to peppy original jams. So far, so cute.
Flora would never cast herself as a “music person,” but it’s clear from the film’s vibrant opening sequence, in which Flora and her best pal spend a wild night out dancing, that she loves the way it makes her feel. And she certainly loves musicians, as we also soon learn that Ian initially earned her affection after impressing her with his bass-playing skills (Ian is quick to remind everyone that he and Flora met the very night that his band was sharing a bill with Snow Patrol; a hilarious glimpse at the group’s sole music video makes it clear that they probably weren’t gonna make it, Snow Patrol or not). Not much else in Flora’s life makes sense, though, and she’s cobbled together an existence that consists of a shoebox apartment, random gigs as a mother’s helper, and frequent visits from the local police, who have had their eyes on Max for nearly half of his life.
And, oh, Max. Flora and her only child behave more like peers, two like-minded roommates who can’t really stand each other. Flora had Max when she just 17, and 14 years on, the process of child-rearing hasn’t gotten any easier for either of them. But Flora knows there’s more out there for her, and when Hewson tosses off a heartbreaking line like, “This can’t be my story,” she’s so earnest that you can’t wince at a revelation that nearly any other actor would make sound cheesier than a sandwich. Flora’s natural state runs from “flirty” to “bawdy,” but Hewson never sees her as some kind of tarty punchline – neither does Carney, and neither will the audience. You know all that stuff about “strong female characters” who are also “flawed” or “human” or whatever other insane word salad Hollywood is still requiring of its female leads? Here’s a real one.
Intent on finding a new outlet for Max’s energy, Flora instead finds one for herself. When Max rejects the aforementioned trashed guitar, Flora embraces the possibility that maybe she should start playing – a slightly off-kilter switcheroo that partially hinges on a girl-powered commercial for “American Idol” – and she soon starts hunting for an online teacher to break her in. Everyone she finds on YouTube, however, seems like kind of a drag – until she lands on Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who just feels real to Flora (a dodgy answer, but one we’ll just have to accept). The two instantly strike up a natural chemistry, with failed musician Jeff – Gordon-Levitt really wears his heart on his sleeve with this one – unable to deny the flinty fun that Flora has suddenly injected into his life.
And, yes, the duo interact mostly via Zoom video, but while Carney is exploring the possibility of real human connection on the internet, he also knows a good pairing when he himself makes it. At various points throughout “Flora and Son,” a natty turn of the camera finds Jeff in the room (or park, or roof, Flora is constantly on the movie) where Flora is, a cute conceit that is a true pleasure every time it’s utilized. Soon, Flora and Jeff are writing songs together, trading secrets, and maybe just falling for each other.
But this is a film called “Flora and Son,” not “Flora and Sad YouTube Guitar Teacher,” and as she and Jeff are hacking away at her lessons, Max starts to cycle gently back into her attention. Turns out, Max may have rejected the guitar, but he’s actually interested in music: he just wants to make it on his shitty laptop, with borrowed speakers and maybe even stolen gear.
When Flora discovers this, suddenly Jeff isn’t the only person she’s making music with, as Carney turns one sort of love story into an entirely different kind. Carney has never been interested in churning out expected endings, but where he takes “Flora and Son” might be his most satisfying conclusion yet, and while it may take a bit of a winding path to get there, hell, isn’t that the problem with life itself? At least this one ends on a very high note indeed.
“Flora and Son” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.