Feel-good 'Flora and Son' a star-making turn for Eve Hewson
"Flora and Son" -- ★ ★ ★
John Carney, the Irish filmmaker of "Once," "Sing Street" and "Begin Again," makes the movie version of "three chords and the truth."
His films, unabashedly earnest, feel-good movies for cynical times, are lo-fi musicals that tell simple stories charmingly. There are love interests, usually. But the abiding romance is for music. His films are the sort that would be easier to dismiss as "sentimental" if his central belief -- in the redemptive power of music -- didn't happen to be kinda true.
The song remains much the same in Carney's latest charmer, "Flora and Son," starring Eve Hewson as a working-class single mother in Dublin who takes up guitar lessons. Flora's initial instinct when she snags a beat-up acoustic guitar out of a dumpster, is to give it to her troubled 14-year-old son, Max (Orén Kinlan) as a day-late birthday present. Max, though, is nonplused.
"You expect me to turn into Ed (expletive) Sheeran?" he says.
Their life together in a small apartment is far from harmonious. Their interactions are caustic and cruel. Flora, who we first meet dancing at a nightclub and going home with a man she immediately regrets, isn't shy about her disinterest in parenting. Max, meanwhile, is close to getting kicked out of school.
These are problems that, perhaps, take more than a six string to solve. But Carney, who wrote and directed the film, has a way of not hitting the cornball notes too hard and mixing in enough humor to keep the saccharine tones from overpowering.
Pondering her sad state of affairs, Flora finds new resolve. "This can't be my story," she says, like a good protagonist. "This can't be my narrative." She flips around on YouTube looking for guitar lessons before settling on Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a laid-back instructor in Southern California who she's immediately attracted to.
Their lessons over Zoom are intimate; Carney sometimes enhances the effect by transporting Jeff into Flora's kitchen. They talk James Blunt and Joni Mitchell. Jeff shares one of his own songs, which Flora bluntly critiques and then helps shape into a lovely duet. (Carney and Gary Clark penned the film's songs.) Outside of the frame, their interactions have some irony. Hewson, the daughter of Bono, was probably born with chops.
The movie proceeds with the satisfying structure of a song: verse, chorus, bridge. Flora's ex-husband, Ian (Jack Reynor), doubts her commitment. But Flora proves adept at her new hobby, which fosters a newfound connection with her son.
Hewson has been a standout in the TV series "The Knick" and "Bad Sisters," but she can be verifiably called a movie star after "Flora and Son." Her character isn't miles off ones we've seen many times, but Hewson's confident, charismatic leading performance has enough grit and spunk to light up the screen. Nepo baby or not, she's a total star.
"Flora and Son," like a B-side to Carney's earlier hits, may sound a little like a tune you've heard before. But it's sung with enough heart to have even the coldest cynic humming.
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An Apple TV+ release. Rated R for language, sexual references and brief drug use. 97 minutes