Producers: Anthony Bregman, John Carney, Peter Cron, Rebecca O’Flanagan and Robert Walpole Director: John Carney Screenplay: John Carney Cast: Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Orén Kinlan, Jack Reynor, Sophie Vavasseur, Aislin McGuckin and Kelly Thornton Distributor: Apple+
The theme of music bringing people together and changing lives reappears repeatedly in the films of Irish writer-director John Carney, and though it may not work quite as well in his latest as it did in the luminous “Once” (2007), he still handles it skillfully enough to warm the heart. “Flora and Son” is basically a modern, feel-good fairy-tale, but an irresistibly charming one.
Flora (Eve Hewson) is a thirty-something woman in Dublin given to drinking, nightclubbing and one-night stands while scraping by as a part-time nanny. She shares a cluttered apartment with her sullen teen son Max (Orén Kinlan), who’s constantly in minor trouble with the law. Flora occasionally drops him off for visits with the boy’s dad Ian (Jack Reynor), a boyish musician with a new live-in Flora detests. Ian reciprocates with smug remarks about Flora’s dead-end status.
One day returning from work Flora notices a beat-up guitar on a trash truck and carries it off, giving it to Max as a belated birthday present. He tosses it aside but she picks it up, forming the notion of learning to play it herself as a way of irritating Ian. She searches on the Internet for somebody to take cheap lessons from, and after scrolling past a lot of would-be teachers settles on Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a long-haired, likably laid-back dude in Topanga Canyon, who offers basic instruction for $20 a pop. Flora’s a bit smitten with the guy, who eventually confesses to a long, dismal effort to break into the business with his songs, and they develop a relationship that grows into something like a long-distance romance as they co-compose a song titled “Meet in the Middle,” with Jeff sometimes magically switching from computer screen to direct contact in a park, or across the table, or on a rooftop as Flora dreams of going to California to actually meet him.
Music-making also serves as her means of reconnecting with Max, who, unbeknownst to her, has compositional ambitions of his own, spinning out white-boy rap pieces on a computer, using equipment he borrows or cadges from shops, his purpose being to impress a classmate he’s infatuated with. When Flora finds out, they bond and begin collaborating too, though his means of adding to his setup gets him in deeper trouble with the law and eventually a stint in juvenile hall. That doesn’t stop their work together, though, and everything culminates in a club session in which mother and son, and even Ian and Jeff, assemble to perform the result, a number called “High Life” that’s among the original songs written for the movie by Carney and Gary Clark.
The new songs may not be the equal of those Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová composed for “Once”—after all, a number like “Falling Slowly” is hardly an everyday occurrence—but as sung by the actors themselves they’re winning and, most important, good fits for the plot. Carney, moreover, adds bits of standards by the likes of Tom Waits (“I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You”) and Hoagy Carmichael (“I Get Along Without You Very Well—Except Sometimes”)—to the mix as part of Jeff’s instruction package. And in an inspired choice that serves as a key not only to Flora’s remaking but to the film’s message, he includes a full archival video of Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now.”
Hewson’s reaction to it, as she begins doing dishes before being drawn, enthralled and moved, back to the screen, is a magical moment in which she gently captures the empathy that Flora is so reluctant to feel toward others. But it’s only a single element in a performance that feels unerringly right. Kinlan is at first a youngster whom you’re likely to find obnoxious, but he grows on you even when his attitude toward Flora comes across as nasty (as when a video they make to impress his would-be girlfriend—admittedly pretty terrible—flops and he blames her). And Gordon-Levitt manages to convey, quietly, Jeff’s disappointment in a career that went nowhere (and an understanding of why) with a still-boyish desire to achieve what’s eluded him. Reynor is an engaging as a fellow who perhaps hasn’t come to quite the same level of self-knowledge.
Like most of Carney’s films, this is a modest picture technically, but Ashleigh Jeffers’ production design and Triona Lillis’ costumes are spot-on, and John Conroy’s unfussy cinematography takes advantage of them and the Dublin locales without prettifying it all. Stephen O’Conell’s editing, while never rushed, brings the film in at a trim ninety-seven minutes.
Carney may be repeating himself to some extent, but when the result is as ingratiating—and subtly touching—as this, who’s to complain?