Flora and Son (2023)
Directed by John Carney
Written by John Carney
Starring Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon Levitt
Release Date September 22nd, 2023
Published September 18th, 2023
Writer-Director John Carney has the keys to my heart. I know what you are thinking, that's weird, right? But it's true. Ever since his extraordinary film Once, and each movie subsequent to that, I have never felt as much emotional kinship to a filmmaker. I trust John Carney. I am vulnerable to his work in a way that I am not with any other filmmaker. His work speaks to me in a very emotional way, as if we know each other and he specifically knows how to move me. I'm vulnerable to him because I always fall completely in love with his characters. That's a scary thing, what if he takes them in a direction I don't like? What if he decided to kill one of them? It's his story after all.
I trust him. I trust that when John Carney gives me movie characters to fall in love with, hope for, root for, and cry for, I trust that he's taking care with that. I trust that he's not going to abuse the privilege of having my heart open to his work. I believe with my entire being that I can lose myself in John Carney's romantic universe and that he will take care to make sure I'm okay, that I feel comfortable, at home. And then he tells the story. He unfolds his story via his characters with remarkable care and precise emotion. He crafts a romantic fantasy that feels like real life but slightly elevated. He can break my heart but when he does it, he does with good purpose, not to cause harm.
Flora and Son is the latest John Carney movie to speak directly to my heart. Flora (Eve Hewson) is a loving and dedicated single mother who also likes to party, drink too much wine, and be a little inappropriate. She may sound like a type, but in the hands of actress Eve Hewson and John Carney, the character becomes a fully rounded human being, flawed and beautiful, angry and loving, a dichotomy of conflicting emotions that come out not always as they are intended to. It's a rich tapestry of a character and empathetic one for sure.
Flora's son, Max (Oren Kinlan) gets into trouble, a lot of it. He's particularly interested in stealing things that he wants. In an effort to try and connect with him, Eve finds a guitar in a trash heap and has it cleaned up and re-strung. She ties a lovely bow on it and then Max says he doesn't want it. Hurt, Flora figures to throw the old guitar out of a window. Then, something stops her. In a scene with her ex-husband, Max's father, Ian (Jack Reynor), Flora takes offense at Ian's joking about the guitar debacle. She threatens to learn the instrument herself and Ian dismisses her.
Upon returning home, Flora goes online seeking a teacher. After a comical few attempts at taking free lessons, she happens upon a video posted by Jeff (Joseph Gordon Levitt). For a price, he will teach guitar over Zoom. Flora takes a flyer on him and signs up. Their first interaction finds Flora a little drunk and a little flirty. She's inappropriate to the point that he seems to fire her as a student. She apologizes, in her very Flora way, and he accepts and the rest of this off-kilter romance and friendship emerges but not in any way you might predict.
John Carney's work is filled with love and life and especially filled with music. Carney's ear for music is uncannily similar to my own. Favoring singer-songwriter types, Carney taps the emotional capital of well known and lesser known tunes to speak on behalf of his characters and that really speaks to me. There is a scene in Flora and Son wherein Flora listens to Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now and has an emotional revelation. That might seem trite on the surface, but the measured performance of Eve Hewson, the way she fights the emotional pull of Joni Mitchell before allowing it to inspire her is incredible.
I was not familiar with Irish Actress Eve Hewson prior to Flora and Son. I can recall that she was in Bridge of Spies and that she played a forgettable Maid Marion in a forgettable Russell Crowe Robin Hood movie, but she didn't stand out. Here however, in the hands of a caring and empathetic director, Hewson finds this character, embodies her faults and her beauty in equal measure and creates a character who enacts elements of arrested development, and then simply improves herself in little, creative ways. She remains a little filthy, a little ornery, but there is organic growth that comes through in Carney's script and Hewson's lovely, nuanced performance.
Joseph Gordon Levitt deserves praise here as well. His performance is mostly via a laptop. His character is based in Los Angeles and the story is set in Dublin. Levitt has a lot of hard work to do mostly without being able to physically act in the scene. He nails it. Carney offers a little magical help by having Flora imagine Levitt's Jeff sitting across from her, sharing intimate space with her, and that works as needed shorthand for the growing depth of their connection and the development of their tentative romance.
That said, this is not about Flora and Jeff. Ultimately, we come back to the title of the movie, Flora and Son. What happens in the relationship between Flora and Max is so lovely and thoughtful, heartbreaking and healing. I won't go into it too much, I very much want you to see it for yourself, but the mother-son bond of Flora and Max is just lovely. Max is a teenager and rarely do we see teenagers portrayed as Max is, a deeply flawed, wildly insecure young man grasping at adulthood, unmoored by a broken home, and crying out for guidance from two parents incapable of guiding anyone.
Max is at times despairing, precocious, violently angry, and self-involved in a way that many, many teenagers are. John Carney understands this emotional minefield and finds graceful, funny, and sweet ways to navigate it. Flora is very much an instinctual parent, one who acts quickly in the moment. She resists getting deep because this requires admitting that she'd rather not be a mom. But, to her credit, she never expresses this to Max and they are just momentary lapses in an otherwise loving relationship. It's hard having a child when you didn't intend to and that dynamic can create an unspoken or loudly spoken resentment.
It requires a remarkable tightrope walk to understand the complex feelings of loving, shame, care, resentment, and a fearsome commitment to loving someone more than you love yourself. Flora never wanted to sacrifice anything to be a parent but has done so, worked through her reluctance, processed it and that's the true journey of Flora and Son, finding a way forward when the path seems blocked and you don't have a map or another way around. That's the heart of Flora and Son that emerges as a musical bond in a glorious finale that is absolutely must see, one of my favorite movie moments of 2023.
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