'Flora and Son' Strikes a Resonant Chord to Resolve Its Dissonant Notes

Directed by John Carney

Starring Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Orén Kinlan, Jack Reynor

Photo courtesy of TIFF

BY Alex HudsonPublished Sep 28, 2023

The right melody has a way of making even the most antisocial sentiments sound sweet. "Every Breath You Take"? Creepy as hell. "I'm on Fire"? Violent and disturbing. But they're such great tunes that they come across as love songs.

In that same tradition, Flora and Son's characters do some quite despicable things, but, with the help of Once director John Carney's reliably touching songs (which were co-written here with Scottish musician Gary Clark), it achieves a tenderness it doesn't quite earn but still feels satisfying. 

Flora (Eve Hewson, who by the way is Bono's daughter) is the irresponsible mom of 14-year-old Max (Orén Kinlan), who's more preoccupied with partying than actually parenting her son. She forgets his birthday, slaps him across the face during the ensuing argument, and at one point admits she wishes he would go missing. Plenty of films have flawed characters, but Flora is almost irredeemable.

After she finds a guitar and decides to take online lessons from Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a teacher based in Los Angeles, their long-distance flirtationship gets off to a similarly sour note, as she won't stop sexually harassing him while he mansplains why her favourite song is actually bad.

It's all a bit icky — but, against the odds, Carney pulls the film back from the brink. It's all thanks to the songs, as it turns out that Max has been secretly making rap beats on his laptop and they're actually pretty good. Finally, mother and son have something to bond over, and Flora's sudden interest in songwriting spills over into her increasingly intimate guitar lessons with Jeff, too. Bad Sisters already proved Hewson a master of portraying a hot mess with a heart of gold, and she manages make it possible to root for Flora in spite of the off-putting moments.

Songwriting comes a little too easily to be fully plausible, and film simply ignores the reality of Zoom lag in order to allow these long-distance collaborators to perform together in a way that's obviously impossible — but musicals aren't supposed to be realistic, and I got sucked in by the impeccably corny songs in spite of myself. By the end, I was invested in Flora's redemption arc. Even though I was clearly being manipulated, I was in good hands with Carney.

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