Saturday, March 2, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Flora and Son’ is Grounded and Genuine

Director: John Carney
Writer: John Carney
Stars: Eve Hewson, Jack Reynor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Synopsis: It follows Flora, a single mom who is at war with her son, Max. Trying to find a hobby for Max, she rescues a guitar from a dumpster and finds that one person’s trash can be a family’s salvation.

Overall, Flora and Son will be your least favorite John Carney film, but it may be the most relatable and honest. It also features the best performance in any of Carney’s films from Eve Hewson. Her off-key and inharmonious character gives the viewer some grounded discord that sets Carney’s film apart from the rest of his filmography

The story follows Flora (Hewson), a single mother stuck in arrested development. Flora and her ex-boyfriend Ian (Jack Reynor) are co-parenting her troubled teenage son, Max (Orén Kinlan), who has been detained several times for fighting and petty theft. A local guard (Don Wycherley) wants Max to join a local boxing club to keep him out of trouble because the next time he’s arrested, he will serve some time in a juvenile detention center.

The issue is that Flora and Ian had Max when they were very young, and both parents are still trying to find themselves, just like Max. Ian is between jobs, and Flora still loves the beats of club music, where she dances and takes strange men home to her apartment, not considering if Max is there. In fact, Flora is so self-involved that she forgets her son’s birthday.

To rectify that, Flora finds a string guitar, pays someone to fix it, and gives it to Max as a gift. After the peace offering blows up in her face, she takes guitar lessons herself. Flora finds a handsome music teacher named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) online for $20 a session so she can start strumming the strings and find some purpose in her life.

Flora and Son was directed by John Carney, the ingenious maestro behind such musical films as Once, Begin Again, and the cult favorite Sing Street. His latest work is more like the love child of Sing Street and Once in tone, with fewer musical numbers and gritty artistry. It is more focused on depicting the aftermath of the characters’ failed musician dreams (Jeff), the youthful exuberance of musical aspirations (Max), and the redemption music can offer (Flora).

Carney’s script deals with that in-between with Hewson’s Flora, who had a child so young she’s still trying to find her way, stunting the progress of her flesh and blood. What’s exciting about this concept is that Flora is openly transparent and honest with everyone around her, which makes for a refreshing experience for the audience.

This becomes even more apparent as Flora and Jeff’s practice sessions progress. Carney has created a bond with these sessions and weekly meetings that begin to be more therapeutic than educational. This offers vulnerable characters self-reflection, providing a connection when those expressions of personal emotional connection are needed.

As they continue to talk, the boundary from education to therapy is crossed into something intimate. Imagine how personal writing your song can be, and collaborating with someone you are attracted to can be euphoric. Carney incorporates some very clever camera editing maneuvers to evoke these emotions as if Jeff were in the room with Flora.

While we can wax poetic about the utterly charming chemistry between Flora and Jeff, the wholly unapologetic performance by Hewson keeps the film from floundering in its third act, practically nose-diving headfirst into mediocrity. Hewson’s Flora is a natural, authentic, and, at times, almost despicable mother who finally finds her way when faced with an opportunity to change her life, make a choice, and ultimately show some overall maturity. Case in point: Hewson is a character that’s three-dimensional, unvarnished, and hard to like  in one moment but charming the next. 

My big issue with Flora and Son, however, is that songs swoon exempt the final number that’s meant to tie everything together. You’ll watch Jeff and Flora heat up the screen and be vibrant when Max begins to assemble his dance beats. 

However, the film shifts into something overtly sentimental, and the film’s most significant musical number it ends with is underwhelming, even if it’s meant to change the movie into something heartwarming that feels cheaper than anything Carney has ever done.

Ultimately, Flora and Son offer an experience unique to Carney’s cinematic worldview, where music can bring people together. It may not be Carney’s best work, but it’s his most grounded and enjoyable. 

Grade: B-

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