At this point, director John Carney has pretty much become a genre unto himself. Since breaking through with his brilliant Oscar winning indie hit Once (still probably his best film), Carney has continually explored the theme of bringing unsettled people together through artistic expression. What’s so remarkable about his variations on that theme is how he’s somehow found a way to keep his artistic milieu fresh throughout multiple films.
His follow up to Once, the lovely and underappreciated Begin Again trafficked expertly in the sometimes stinging comedy and drama of life. Sing Street was met with well-deserved rapturous reviews, as Carney turned his focus toward a high school coming of age story (with a backbeat, naturally). It brings me no small amount of pleasure to say that his latest film, Flora and Son not only keeps Carney’s winning streak alive, but may just make a sizable star out of its lead, Eve Hewson, who gives one of the most winning performances of the year.
Hewson plays Flora, a single mom who’s only about 16 years older than her barely teenaged son (the terrific Orén Kinlan) who is struggling to stay out of the Irish version of juvenile detention (it must be said that Dublin itself is like a character in its own right here). The thing is, as much as Flora loves her son, she’s a bit of a mess too. She has no career, no obvious prospects, and her ex-husband is only half in on looking after their wayward son. In many ways, the thirtyish Flora is still a teenager herself.
A unique characteristic of the film (among many) is that Flora and Son is sort of a dual coming of age movie. This isn’t just a story of a young boy on the cusp of manhood and whether he will get himself together or not, it’s also about a woman whose own growth has been stunted by having a child at such a young age.
The two live alone in a cramped apartment and behave more like warring siblings than mother and child. At one point early in the film, Flora suggests that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if her son went missing. In a different film, that line might have been cringe-worthy, but Carney’s screenplay is so adept in dealing with the trials of parenthood, and Hewson delivers the line with such weary wit, that her statement isn’t just relatable to all struggling moms (or parents) it’s also laugh out loud funny.
And that’s one thing that shouldn’t be missed here in discussing Flora and Son. While the film is full of significant warmth and drama, it’s also frequently hilarious and profane as hell thanks to Hewson’s dialogue which is delivered in pitch-perfect fashion. There’s one sequence in the film where Flora confronts her ex-husband about his new girlfriend and takes his latest replacement for her to task over her facility (or lack thereof) with a certain sex act. The words that come from Flora’s mouth are remarkably vulgar, but Hewson’s verve in delivering those wicked and perversely satisfying lines more than carries the moment—although I did find it hard to laugh with my mouth hanging open in slack jawed fashion.
In Flora and Son, music supplies the tie that binds and also heals. Flora discovers a guitar in a neighbor’s refuse, has it restrung and repaired, and on half a lark after her son refuses the instrument as a birthday gift, decides to take up the weathered acoustic herself, and purchases lessons online from a low-key, sad-sack teacher whose own musical dreams never came true. That teacher is played by the immensely charming Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also gets to show off some musical chops of his own. He and Flora quickly develop chemistry and an attraction that grows through ye olde internet superhighway, and before long, the two begin to write songs together.
Hewson, who comes from a musical family (you may have heard of her dad and his band–Bono and U2), acquits herself far more than ably as she performs multiple songs (sometimes completely live) on screen. Hewson even co-wrote the two songs that form the centerpieces of the film.
It is not hard at all to imagine a different version of this movie that would have followed through with a conventional romance between Hewson and Gordon-Levitt’s characters, but Flora and Son sticks to its title, and the heart of the film is about the ability of these two warring factions to find each other at a critical time in both of their lives.
Because this is a John Carney film, that connection is made through music. And as mother and son tentatively discover each other and, perhaps just as importantly, themselves, the film becomes progressively more satisfying down the stretch run. Carney has always trafficked in giving the audience what it needs as opposed to what it may want, and that’s certainly the case here. Not everything is tied up in a bow. In fact, very little is, but the presence of hope as the film reaches its climax is unmissable, if not a given.
As the film closes with a performance by mother, son, ex-husband, and a beamed in via laptop Gordon-Levitt, the film peaks right at the perfect moment—knowing just when to quit. When the film’s title appeared on screen during its last seconds, I actually said out loud to my TV, “perfect.”
Because that’s what Flora and Son is. A movie that is so assured and so clear-eyed in its goals that there was no way it could miss its target. And so it doesn’t. How god damn exhilarating.