Few filmmakers romanticize music — its magical ability to move and transform us — more than John Carney. His breakthrough hit, Once (2007), which follows an Irish busker with a guitar and a Czech pianist in Dublin, won over audiences, got an Academy Award for Best Song and inspired a Broadway musical. Flora and Son isn’t a remake, but Carney certainly borrows his earlier film’s tropes, from the hardscrabble lives of his characters to the story that includes their attempt to write a song together, and a plot in which romance and making music are inseparable. But why not borrow and tweak a formula so winning?
Flora and Son has the great advantage of Eve Hewson as Flora, the young mother of a 14-year-old boy, Max (a very natural Oren Kinlan), whose petty theft threatens to land him in juvenile detention. As she does in the recent series Bad Sisters, Hewson takes a flawed but good-hearted mess of a character and makes her sympathetic, likable and fully human. Only 17 when Max was born, Flora scrapes together a living as a babysitter, but is no sentimental angel of a mother. She is first seen dancing exuberantly and drinking at a club. She curses at her son in exasperation. Mostly, she is at loose ends about what to do with him, while her ex, Max’s father (Jack Reynor), is too much of a big kid himself to be any help.
When Flora finds an old guitar in a dumpster, she has it restored for Max. But he rejects the present a day after she forgot his birthday (thanks, Mom), so she decides to take lessons herself. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Jeff, the teacher she finds online, a once-hopeful musician living in Topanga and now giving lessons on Zoom for $20 each. When Jeff rhapsodizes about his passion for music and its power to affect us emotionally, he might as well be channeling the sentiments that shape Carney’s film. The dialogue could have sounded like hot-air rhetoric, but Gordon-Levitt makes it thoroughly believable, and gives Jeff an understated charm that creates an opposites-attract dynamic with Flora’s brash vitality.
Flora and Jeff’s Zoom sessions are livelier than you might expect. At first, fueled by a large glass of wine, she comes onto him, and soberly texts an apology the next day. Their connection is obvious even through their screens, and once the lessons begin in earnest, Carney weaves in the music that infuses the film. The original songs are by Gary Clark and Carney, who together also did the music for Sing Street (2016), Carney’s film about 1980’s teenagers putting together a band. The new songs are mostly ballads, some deliberately amateurish — Jeff is never going to be a star — and others lovely. Gordon-Levitt and Hewson do their own vocals, in voices that are pleasant, light and modest.
Carney’s point, in all his films, is that music for its own sake is one of life’s great gifts, an idea Jeff helps Flora appreciate. When his own mediocre composition about Topanga fails to move her, he sends her a video of Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.” He isn’t deluded about the difference between Mitchell’s talent and his, but that will never stop him from playing.
The music also ranges over styles. As he teaches Flora, Jeff sings bits of songs by Tom Waits and Hoagy Carmichael. And as the story moves fluidly ahead, Max begins to mix music tracks and add rap lyrics on his laptop, and Flora helps him make a music video for a girl he likes. Whenever it seems like the next steps in the rom-com plots are obvious, though, Carney swerves in different directions.
Carney and the production designer, Ashleigh Jeffers, have a strong feel for the detailed texture of the characters’ lives, especially Flora’s cluttered apartment, strewn with ashtrays and wine glasses. There is nothing flashy or eye-catching about the visuals here. The cinematography and editing are no more than sturdy and functional. Carney tends to rely on a flat shot/reverse shot style for much of the film. But in a couple of gracefully done scenes, Jeff actually appears in Flora’s kitchen or in the park where they’re Zooming, her wishful imagination bringing him into her space as their relationship grows.
Since Carney’s films now have a distinct signature, Flora and Son won’t land with the same sense of originality that Once did. But this engaging film takes full advantage of its stylistic DNA.