Flora and Son is a welcome return to feature films for director John Carney – and could finally prove Eve Hewson as a major talent to watch out for.
It’s been seven years since Carney’s charming school musical Sing Street, an unassuming indie favorite that has nevertheless developed a faithful following and helped launch the careers of Lucy Boynton and Jack Reynor.
Reynor returns here as Ian, one of several aspiring musicians populating Carney’s wistful Dublin streets, where music is found around every corner.
The Midsommar star portrays the ex-boyfriend of Hewson’s Flora, a now single mother struggling to raise their delinquent son Max (played by Orén Kinlan).
When the kleptomaniac teenager runs into trouble with the Gardaí yet again, Flora becomes desperate to find him a hobby and encourages him to start learning guitar when she finds one abandoned in a skip.
However, she soon takes an unexpected liking to the battered instrument herself and calls on the services of online music teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to help her learn.
Hewson has struggled to stand out from the crowd until now, last seen on Apple TV+ surrounded by other Irish talents in Sharon Horgan’s brilliant comedy-thriller Bad Sisters.
She’s now taken on her first leading role for a feature film, and Flora and Son is the perfect showcase for her charming, naturalistic presence and the musical talent she’s clearly inherited from her famous dad.
Her performance as Flora is an absolute showstopper, aided by winning support from Kinlan as the mother-and-son team slowly starts to bond over chords and trance music.
Brutal digs at James Blunt aside, Carney remains as unpretentious about music as ever, and it’s a joy to watch Max begin to find his calling in techno and rap – think The Streets – while Flora collaborates on more acoustic fare with Jeff.
Unfortunately, Gordon-Levitt’s music teacher is the biggest issue with the film, as his musical mansplaining all too often feels like Ryan Gosling’s jazz fanatic in La La Land with added smugness.
Their lessons are constrained by Zoom, too, and Carney’s decision to remove the digital divide by having the characters metaphorically share the same space doesn’t hide the fact their stilted chemistry can only take the budding romance so far.
Still, the barriers eventually come down and their 6,000-mile connection is a refreshing celebration of technology in a year where the AI uprising feels closer than ever.
Flirty exchanges and longing looks are still deeply felt through the webcam, and the viewer will eventually soften to Jeff once Hewson’s slinky, wine-fuelled charisma begins to melt away his guarded persona.
Even with geographical and generational barriers, Carney’s central four characters all find common ground in music, the central theme throughout most of his films so far.
In a blunter story, Flora and the family would feel confined by their suburban setting and use music as a way to escape, perhaps eventually finding stardom and success through the charming love song Max and her mother construct throughout the film.
Thankfully, Flora and Son crescendos with a much more nuanced finale, wrapping up complex themes of class and motherhood with an understated yet satisfying celebration of musical collaboration.
Carney’s latest effort doesn’t quite reach the highs of Once or Sing Street, but it’s still guaranteed to have you tapping your feet and reaching for an old guitar.
Flora and Son is out in cinemas from Thursday and releases Friday, September 29 on Apple TV+