John Carney’s latest tries to mix kitchen sink drama with feel-good pop to uneven results.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the works being covered here wouldn’t exist.
About 75 minutes into Flora and Son, its script veers toward the self-reflexive. “What movie are you in?” Flora (Eve Hewson) snaps. “One without you in it,” her son, Max (Orén Kinlan), replies. This sort of exchange fits holistically into writer-director John Carney’s latest. It’s self-aware, sure, but it’s not meta. Like most of the film’s writing, it is entirely transparent in its machinations, going so far as to declare them at points. Supporting characters largely function as symbols rather than people.
On the contrary, their emotions carry a literalism that the actors elevate. So, what movie are they all in? Well, not the same one.
In Dublin, Flora is a single, working-class mother separated from burnout Ian (Jack Reynor), whom she met while he was touring with Snow Patrol. In the years since their relationship crumbled, Flora has struggled with their delinquent teenage son. His run-ins with the law accumulating, she gifts him a guitar in a pallid attempt to straighten him out. He rejects it. She salvages it. After that, he’s gone for much of the movie. Similarly, other characters float in and out.
Soon, Flora’s attraction to music-making comes to a head. In a search for guitar lessons, she meets Los Angeles-based music teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) online. She starts taking classes from him over Zoom, his Topanga Canyon backdrop gleaming from inside her darkened flat. Why does she want to learn the guitar? the film wonders via Jeff’s dialogue. What are her goals? Why does she want people to like her?
It’s a preponderance of questions that intrinsically function as answers, answers seemingly designed to guide the audience as much as the actors onscreen. In such a regard, it reflects much of Flora and Son’s simplicity. In others, it’s here that the script toys with its characters’ detachments on a basic level.
Flora and Son can do a few things well, but it doesn’t do many of them simultaneously.
Jeff is a symbol by design, a face on a screen closer than anyone in Flora’s personal life. Their conversations continue at a rhythm more consistent than most other things in the film, transcending their physical distance as much as the picture’s saturated, often flat aesthetics. Soon enough, the film depicts their lessons as if they’re in the same physical space, Carney and DP John Conroy raising the saturation to the point where it looks like a music video.
This light stylization placed against the script’s unevenness is what works, at least in theory. When it does work, it’s because the film gets its characters on a more peripheral level, exploring their interactions as fodder for a more episodic exploration of Flora herself. There are times when Flora and Son seems to float between supporting castmates. In a narrative context, though, it seems to forget about them. Such leads to points when it wrangles them back into the fold for the sake of drama. Flora and Son can do a few things well, but it doesn’t do many of them simultaneously.
Moments with Ian border on immaterial, but that’s okay because they work as vessels to explore Flora’s own alacrity and, by proxy, the film’s crudeness. On the other hand, take scenes where she and Max go shopping for clothes. The banter is quick, often stemming from the former’s working-class struggles and the latter’s corresponding aspirations of being a star. There’s something here in how these characters do or don’t communicate, but the script doesn’t do all the work. Whenever it all comes back to Max’s delinquency, everything becomes external. Flora and Son tries to wrap kitchen sink lyrics in mass pop production.
It’s likable in spurts, cloying in others, and often works when it does due to its performers. Hewson elevates her role considerably. It often feels as if she’s playing Flora at three different ages, all within the same scene. Carney’s attempts at crass humor are uneven, but the actor delivers them with an almost broad unpredictability that centers them. The movie doesn’t give Kinlan a lot, but he does what he can with it. Meanwhile, Gordon-Levitt plays the sunny SoCal schtick well, grounding a role that encapsulates Carney’s easiest impulses. He knows he’s playing an idea of a person.
That they’re not all really in the same movie isn’t the problem. The imbalance at hand isn’t entirely the issue either. Rather, it’s that the film undersells the title relationship before ultimately centering itself on such, relegating itself to cliché. “It’s not really about the number of chords,” Jeff tells Flora during their first lesson. “It’s more, you know, how you use them.” Flora and Son isn’t without its merits. But by the end of the day, it’s in one ear and out the other.
Flora and Son strums in theatres September 22 and on AppleTV+ September 28.