FLORA AND SUN | USA | 2023 | 94m | English
Starring: Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Oren Kinlan
Directed By: John Carney
Flora (Eve Hewson) is something of a hot mess. She’s feisty, charismatic, and a trouble magnet. She loves to party — but she loves her 14-year-old son Max (Orén Kinlan) more, even if it seems like all they do is quarrel. In an effort to bridge the gulf between them, Flora gives Max a guitar, but Max’s ideal musical instrument is his computer, which he uses to construct infectious dance tracks.
Rather than let the guitar collect dust, Flora opts to develop her own musical chops, taking online lessons from Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a handsome troubadour who shows Flora how to form basic chords and introduces her to the genius of Joni Mitchell. Flora falls for Jeff, despite the fact that she’s in Dublin and he’s in Los Angeles. But as Jeff pierces Flora’s heart, he also inspires in her a creative urge that might lead to a whole new way of connecting with Max.
TIFF REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
RATING 4 out of 5
Flora and Son is an utterly charming musical experience, once again showcasing John Carney’s exceptional storytelling set to a great soundtrack of original music, and brought to life by an excellent lead performance by Eve Hewson.
There is something truly enchanting about the films of John Carney. His ability to tell human stories about ordinary people, while simultaneously tugging on your heartstrings and making you laugh and forget about all your worries, all set to a wonderful soundtrack is unmatched by any other filmmaker today. Simple in execution, the effect that his films have on audiences is anything but. After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and being acquired by AppleTV+ for distribution, Carney’s latest film is ready to become yet another crowd pleaser in his filmography that is easily my second favourite film of his after the masterful Sing Street.
Flora and her son Max are constantly battling with each other. In an effort to set Max on a better life path after his run-ins with the police, Flora fixes up a guitar for Max hoping to get him into music. But when Max refuses to learn guitar, Flora takes up guitar lessons online with Jeff, an American guitar teacher, beginning a journey of healing for both Flora and Max.
Like all of Carney’s films, there is a human story at the centre of Flora and Son. This time it revolves around a mother son relationship as both look for a creative outlet in their life, and then bonding over music. Both of the characters are flawed, Max with his criminal activities, and Flora feeling like she has no direction or drive in her life, but at the same time you instantly connect and relate to them. Carney’s screenplay evolves naturally, allowing the characters to grow at their own pace over the film’s runtime, taking them on a journey fuelled by their passion for music to become better individuals and strengthening their relationship. Like all of Carney’s previous films, there are no grand Hollywood moments, but instead authentic interactions between the characters that will have you smiling one moment, while getting emotional the next as they stumble their way through life. It feels like Carney’s previous films in terms of story and writing, as the main theme is once again the healing power of music, but when you have created hit after hit using the same blueprint with different narratives, there is no need to refine a successful formula.
At the centre of the story is the music, and the songs penned by Carney and his co-writer Gary Clark are absolutely wonderful. Capturing the guitar folk feel of Flora and Jeff’s guitar lessons, and Max’s fascination with modern popular music, each song composed for the film captures the spirit of the characters and the charm of Carney’s writing. The songs are more than just music, they play an integral part to the story, whether they be a comical number like “Juanita” where Flora mocks her ex’s new partner, or a more tender number like “Meet Me in the Middle,” which captures Flora’s development over the course of the film, and the sweet bond between her and Jeff. Without question, my favourite is the lyrical duet “Meet Me in the Middle” performed by Hewson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which has an lush, slightly romantic, and endearing quality to it that makes you want to sway along with it. The other standout song is “High Life”, the film’s closing number and official song submission for the Academy Awards, which is an energetic crowd pleaser that you will be humming through the film’s credits.
Though, it is the lead performance of Hewson that brings the film to life. From the beginning of the film, Hewson is radiant and spirited, bringing to life Flora with an emotional honesty. Capturing a mix of brash, caring and passion, mixed with a sweet vulgarness that North American audiences associate with Ireland, you do not see Hewson in the film, only Flora. It’s a true embodiment of Carney’s writing, with Hewson creating a loveable character that instantly earns a place in your heart, making for one of the most heartwarming performances of the year. I would not be surprised if we see Hewson’s name appearing at the Golden Globes next year with a nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, because she is that stunning in the film.
Never failing to be utterly charming in any role he is cast in is Gordon-Levitt as Flora’s guitar teacher Jeff. While he is on the other end of a video call for the entire film, Gordon-Levitt’s optimism and charm lights up the film and is the perfect match to Carney’s whimsical stylings. It truly is a casting that is written in the stars, as Gordon-Levitt embodies Carney’s style at every turn. Sharing all his scenes with Hewson, there is a playful bond between them that flirts with romance, but insteads creates a deeper and more cathartic bond between them that makes their scenes the best moments of the film. Orén Kinlan is a revelation as Max, capturing the youthful rebelliousness of his character, while seeing Jack Reynor reunite with Carney after starring in Sing Street is a welcomed addition rounding out the supporting cast with a great performance.
Ensuring a wholesome and truly entertaining watch, John Carney once again strikes gold with Flora and Son. With memorable original songs that will have you applauding mid film, a heartfelt story that instantly wins you over, a wonderful supporting turn from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a stunning lead performance from Eve Hewson, Flora and Son is another cinematic gem from Carney that ranks as one of his best films to date.