Review by Jonathan Berk
Writer and director John Carney has an incredible knack for creating non-traditional musical movies. His characters don’t break out randomly into songs with music playing from out of nowhere. Instead, in his films Once, Begin Again, Sing Street, and now Flora and Son, his characters are musicians who find the answers they are so desperately in need of through song. While the songs in this film aren't as strong as those in Once or Sing Street, Flora and Son excels in character and performance.
Flora (Eve Hewson) had her 14-year-old son Max (Orén Kinlan) when she was just 17. Their relationship would be strained enough if Max wasn’t also on the verge of being sent to juvenile detention. After being advised to get Max a hobby, Flora gets him an acoustic guitar. Max rejects the gift, which leads Flora to find online guitar lessons for herself from a Los Angeles-based teacher named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It takes the power of song to remind Flora and Max about the joys of life.
Hewson is an absolute powerhouse in this movie. She is funny, charming, melancholic, and even scary at times. She delivers exactly what the scenes call for in terms of emotion. Her chemistry with everyone in the film is great, but her interactions with Gordon-Levitt are where the film shines. There is an incredible set piece that benefits from Carney’s decision to present their long-distance Zoom conversations in a more compelling visual way. The two characters are on the roof of her apartment, playing a song together for the first time. There is a slightly stage-like aesthetic to the production design, which makes this scene feel the most like a traditional musical. The scene stands out due to the song, the performances, and the set all working in perfect harmony.
That's not to undersell the young talent that Kinlan displays. He isn’t the focus of this film, but he gets some incredible scenes. When Flora discovers Max’s true reason for having a laptop, the film gets going. The familial relationship between the two and Max’s dad (Carney alum Jack Reynor) is the backbone of the film. All of the set-ups get expertly paid off and the end. Carney even employs a similar final shot in this film, reminiscent of Once’s iconic — and most expensive — crane shot. It appears that this time they lent him a drone to get his long take of the Dublin street.
For fans of Carney’s style and messaging, Flora and Son will be an instant favorite. His grasp of the effect music has on people is always evident. He makes musicals that people who hate musicals can often still enjoy.
Flora and Son will be available on Apple TV+ on September 29.