Review: In the charming ‘Flora and Son,’ songwriting becomes a way forward to a happier life

A boy and his mother make music together.
Orén Kinlan and Eve Hewson in the movie “Flora and Son.”
(Apple TV+)
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Irish filmmaker and songwriter John Carney has never been afraid of a little sincerity. Or a lot. In fact, he’s a champion of earnestness, making big, swoony feelings set to incredible music the core of his filmmaking since his 2007 breakout hit, “Once,” which scored the Oscar for best original song for the achingly beautiful love song “Falling Slowly,” by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. He wraps his homespun and heartfelt stories, which also include “Begin Again,” and “Sing Street,” in tunes that can be catchy or poignant, and his latest, “Flora and Son,” is no exception.

He’s also got a star with a remarkable rock pedigree in Eve Hewson, the daughter of U2 frontman Bono. She anchors the film as Flora, a young Dublin mother yearning for more. But Hewson’s famous father is of no import here; she owns the screen with her mischievous charm, inhabiting Flora’s sharp wit and uninhibited nature, which is undergirded by a raw vulnerability. Hewson also has a gorgeous singing voice, but that might be afforded to her just by virtue of her Irish heritage.

When we meet Flora, she’s stampeding to the dance floor to lose herself in a thumping techno beat, and potentially in the arms of a stranger. Electronic dance music is her on-screen signature, and Carney charts her musical evolution alongside her personal journey over the course of “Flora and Son.”


Flora is young and beautiful, but she has responsibilities that supersede her wild nights out — keeping her 14-year-old son Max (Orén Kinlan) out of trouble, tangling with her ex, Ian (Jack Reynor), Max’s dad, and working as a mother’s helper. Like a lot of Carney characters, Flora is stuck. She dreams of something more, but she doesn’t know what, exactly. By a stroke of luck and determination, she finds it in a garbage dumpster.

What she sees is a busted acoustic guitar that she thinks might keep Max out of trouble. When he expresses disinterest, it sits in the corner like a telltale heart, beckoning Flora to pick it up. She’s driven by her desire for purpose and passion, and also by spite, wanting to stick it to Ian, who enjoyed a modicum of success with his band years ago when they first met (“We shared a bill with Snow Patrol,” he brags). So she chugs some wine and signs up for online guitar lessons with a soulful Southern California bard named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who opines about songwriting with Topanga Canyon looming in the Zoom background.

A woman and a man play guitar together.
Eve Hewson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the movie “Flora and Son.”
(David Cleary / Apple TV+)

In “Flora and Son,” Carney is interested in the way that music and songwriting can bridge vast distances, both geographical and emotional, which are themes he constantly returns to in his work, though they seem as fresh and exciting as ever. As Flora grows closer to Jeff, who represents an escapist fantasy from her dreary Dublin life, Carney liberates him from the screen of her laptop. They strum and sing together in her kitchen and in the park, and she offers frank notes on his songs, the shared experience of making music allowing them to somehow traverse oceans and continents.

In her real life, music becomes the thread that connects Flora to Max as well, as she discovers he’s making electronic beats. It becomes an activity that binds mother and son as they collaborate on songs and music videos, Flora hyping up the quiet, withdrawn Max to become the hip-hop superstar he dreams to be. Making music also provides neutral ground to find peace with Ian as well, as Flora reshapes her tiny dysfunctional family into a new iteration.

The Irish filmmaker behind “Once” and “Sing Street” returns with a drama, this time about a Dublin mom connecting to her son via a shared love of making music.

Sept. 22, 2023

There’s an air of magical realism to Carney’s films, as fate and fantasy slip and slide together when chords thrum the air. It’s reflected in how he imagines Jeff and Flora in the same space together; it tickles the edges of Flora and Max’s collaborations. But ultimately “Flora and Son” remains grounded in reality, and in Flora’s connection with her son. Her purpose in life was in front of her all along. She just needed to find herself in the mix too.


Carney’s insistence on guileless emotion in the songwriting (he and Scottish musician Gary Clark co-wrote the original tunes) makes for intensely open-hearted moments. But his script is typically Irish, imbued with playful jabs and crude humor, and Hewson’s forthright and foul-mouthed performance proves to be the perfect hit of sweet-and-sour acid to offset what could have been impossibly treacly. She’s a superstar in the making.

It’s almost unbelievable that Carney pulls off films like this, which could easily tip over into maudlin. Instead, the winning “Flora and Son” is an utterly irresistible emotional ear-worm.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

'Flora and Son'

Rating: R, for language throughout, sexual references and brief drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Now in limited release; Apple TV+ on Sept. 29