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Irish director John Carney has made a name for himself as a storyteller with a heart for feel-good, romantic movies, often using music to unite his characters. His latest creation, “Flora and Son,” shares much in common with his hits “Once,” “Begin Again,” and “Sing Street.” This time, a single mom, Flora (Eve Hewson), struggles to keep her son Max (Orén Kinlan) out of trouble in Dublin. She gets the idea to give her teenager a guitar, but he quickly refuses it in all his teenage angst. That’s not the music he’s interested in creating—he prefers a blend of electronic, hip-hop, and pop. So, Flora takes up the guitar instead, hiring an American teacher named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to teach her the chords and the finer notes of creating music and writing lyrics over Zoom. In finding music, Flora finds her voice, a kindred spirit in her teacher, and a way to connect with her surly son.
Carney, who wrote and directed “Flora and Son,” uses music in the film to communicate, convey emotion, and incorporate it into the story as a means for characters to connect. What starts as a rocky, failed flirtation between Flora and her music teacher becomes a lovely sequence of a growing long-distance relationship. It’s easily the most lovable part of the film, and it's like watching Carney play a beloved hit song: building characters who make music together and fall in love in the process. To illustrate their feelings, Carney has Jeff appear in the room with Flora, melting away the barriers of space and time differences for tender moments, trading cheeky flirtatious lines, and staring into each other’s eyes while strumming guitars. It’s a sweet fantasy that cleverly changes right before the camera, like a recurring daydream.
While the performances are effortlessly charming, the soundtrack is more discordant this time. The majority of the compositions are either acoustic (traditional grounds for Carney) or a cross electro-pop rap dance music that don't quite work as well as, say, the soundtracks to “Once” or the '80s tribute “Sing Street.” Gary Clark, who also composed “Sing Street” music, tries to incorporate Flora’s love for dance music, her son’s admiration of local YouTube rappers, and Jeff’s more traditional folk-and-rock guitar background. As the music quality slips, so does a bit of this movie’s appeal.
However, Hewson does an impeccable job as Flora, the movie's heart and soul. Her character is a wild child with a kid of her own, full of resentment of having her adolescence cut short, but the determination not to let parenting responsibility slow down her ability to party and date after the end of her marriage. Hewson plays Flora’s range with a lot of heart, electric energy, a defiant streak, and a vulnerable side we only see when she opens up to Jeff. Flora’s ex-husband Ian (Jack Reynor) has moved on with another woman and is himself a frustrated musician. Flora initially wants to win him back, but the guitar lessons effectively show her there is love for her beyond her past.
As Flora’s love interest, Gordon-Levitt makes for a perfect long-distance crush. He’s quite different from her, somewhat mysterious at first but clearly passionate about music and excited to share it. Meanwhile, Kinlan's Max is sidelined for stretches of “Flora and Son” but brings a storm of sullen anger into the room whenever he and Flora fight.
For a movie so driven by music, it’s unfortunate that its final number is somewhat of a mess, its lyrics weaker than the performances that led up to it. Tense situations quickly resolve themselves, and everyone in the makeshift group conveniently has a part to play. I only wish it felt more like music to my ears.
This review was filed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. "Flora and Son" will be available in theaters on September 22nd and on Apple TV+ on September 29th.