By Lynn Venhaus
One person’s trash becomes another person’s treasure when a feisty lost soul rescues a beat-up acoustic guitar from a dumpster in modern-day Dublin. In yet another charmer from Irish writer-director John Carney, “Flora and Son” achieves harmony for its scruffy characters through the transformative power of music.
Flora (Eve Hewson), a single mom who is at war with her son, Max (Oren Kinlan), thinks the guitar would be a good hobby/diversion for him, as he close to being sent to a juvenile detention center. With the help of an L.A. musician/guitar teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), she finds a path to self-discovery.
With its intentional aim to tug on our hearts and evoke honest laughter through ordinary people’s daily lives, Carney hits his target. It may not be as profound an example as his previous films, “Once,” “Begin Again” and “Sing Street,” but each well-drawn character finds purpose, changes subtly, and reinforces the magic of music as a universal language.
Carney’s affection for music to soothe our souls is vividly brought to life as Flora takes guitar lessons from Jeff, and in those Zoom calls, the connection they share through technology is palpable.
Both the appealing Joseph Gordon-Levitt, himself a musician, and charismatic Eve Hewson, an actress known for “Bad Sisters” and “The Knick,” have pleasant enough untrained voices, singing from the heart. This is not a grandiose moment like Lady Gaga singing in “A Star is Born” – this is a quieter, more realistic portrayal. They are not destined for greatness, but to them, music is the gift that keeps on giving.
Oren Kinlan is also convincing as the sullen teenager whose interests lie in dubstep and hip-hop. He and his mother are perpetually scowling at the world, so their collaborations make them a bit more tolerant of each other, achieving some well-needed bonding.
Both their relationships with Max’s unreliable father Ian are complicated. A grown-up kid himself, Ian’s claim to fame is that he was in a band good enough to once open for Snow Patrol, an Irish-Scottish indie rock band who had mainstream success in the early 2000s.
Jack Reynor, who gained attention as the rock-loving older brother Brendan in Carney’s 2016 “Sing Street,” is effective here as someone who needs to figure out his life.
Hewson, whose father is U2 frontman Bono, heretofore hasn’t performed music, but has been working steadily in films and television for a decade. She was Tom Hanks’ daughter in “Bridge of Spies” and James Gandolfini’s daughter in “Enough Said,” among others. But this is her moment to shine.
Being able to show range with this gift of a character, she is a revelation as the tart-tongued, blunt Flora, who is definitely not a candidate for Mother of the Year nor is she striving to be. She’s utterly engaging as an immature woman dealing with life’s setbacks in a more self-destructive way, desperately in need of some direction.
The song the quartet perform together, “High Life,” written by Flora and her son about motherhood, is a catchy earworm that will remain in your head after the movie’s over. It’s the song, written by the writer-director and Gary Clark, a Scottish music producer, that is being submitted to the Oscars for Best Song awards consideration. Carney and Clark wrote the original tunes for the soundtrack.
(Carney’s films have a decent track record in this category – “Falling Slowly,” written by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the stars of “Once,” won Best Song in 2007, and “Lost Stars,” sung by Adam Levine in “Begin Again,” was nominated in 2014.)
You’ll want to listen during the credits to Gordon-Levitt’s character Jeff’s song he wrote about Flora.
The movie is set in the Dublin neighborhoods that tourists may not see, and the dialogue is salty.. A word of warning: the Irish dialect is sometimes difficult to decipher, so close captioning is advised for streaming.
Shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, “Flora and Son” was enthusiastically received and has been tagged a crowd-pleaser ever since.
This affecting tale runs 1 hour, 34 minutes, and is designed to make you smile. It’s delightful to experience with others, who understand the joy that music sparks, and it has enough humorous moments that people responded to its heartfelt message.
“Flora and Son” is a 2023 comedy-drama written and directed by John Carney and starring Eve Hewson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Oren Kinlan and Jack Reynor. It is rated R for language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use, and runs 1 hour, 34 minutes. It opens in select theaters and is streaming on Apple TV+ Sept. 29. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.