Carney’s latest, Flora and Son, continues this tradition, but while still sticking to his expected style, Carney’s newest story spans further distances before, with more genres than we’ve come to expect. Flora and Son is expansive in a way that Carney hasn’t quite been, yet the film still maintains the intimacy and emotional power that Carney can bring to a story through the simplest choices.
Flora and Son centers around—as the name implies—Flora (Eve Hewson), a young single mother in Dublin who is having trouble raising her son Max (Orén Kinlan). Max keeps getting caught stealing, and the local police have given him about as many chances as they can. In order to try and give her son a hobby that doesn’t involve theft, Flora finds and fixes up a guitar as a late birthday present for Max. But when Max shows no interest in the guitar, Flora decides to give it a go herself, hiring Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an online guitar teacher from L.A., to teach her how to play.
Carney is hitting many of the same notes that we’ve seen him explore before, but it doesn’t really matter when the film is as charming as Flora and Son. For example, Jeff teaches Flora the power and importance of lyrics, blowing her mind with his rendition of “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes),” and shows the significance of a great song, transforming her musical mindset with Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Flora also shows Jeff how he can make his own songs better, bringing a fresh perspective to songs Jeff has worked on for years, and creating a musical collaboration in the process.
As Flora and Son goes on, some of the most touching moments come from a character using music to connect with another person. When Flora discovers that Max has been making his own music on his computer, the two begin to bond over their shared passion, working together, and finally finding something they can connect through. Carney isn’t just showing how music can work as a way for people to communicate and get closer to each other, but also shows how the power of music can evolve a person. As these characters become more adept at their instruments and musical gifts, they also change as people who are more compassionate, more loving, and more considerate towards those around them.
This connection through music shows that distance doesn’t matter. As Flora and Jeff get to know each other in their practice sessions, Jeff comes out of Flora’s computer, sitting right in front of her with his guitar, instead of showing up to her on a screen. It’s a beautiful way to show the bond that is forming between these two, and the closeness they feel, despite being thousands of miles apart.
But again, as the name states, Flora and Son is primarily about a mother and her son, and how they finally find each other through a shared love of music. Carney’s script doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties of this relationship, presenting a mother who would much rather have her son go live with his dad, Ian (Jack Reynor), another musician who once thought he was close to fame. The slow build towards these two getting to know each other feels natural and realistic, as they share their passions with each other, which becomes a shared passion. In a Sundance where so many films like Fairyland, Eileen, The Pod Generation, and Bad Behaviour focused on the relationship between parent and child, Flora and Son’s fractured bond might be the festival’s best.
Carney’s story works so well because this cast is brilliant, with Hewson’s Flora standing out above the rest. She’s flawed and still trying to figure out who she is, but Hewson makes Flora likable even at her worst. She likes to party, steals, yells at her son, and tries to seduce Ian back, yet from the very beginning, we’re in her corner every step of the way. It’s also great to see Gordon-Levitt in a role that plays to his strengths, as he’s able to be as sincere as he wants to be and have it work for him. It’s also shocking to realize that this is the first film that allows Gordon-Levitt to be part of a musical. Kinlan’s Max is delightfully awkward, in the way that all teenagers are, and even when he’s trying to be tough, we can feel the quiet artist within that wants to express himself.
But also essential to Flora and Son is the music, which comes from Carney and Gary Clark. The songs in Flora and Son have a delicate balance to walk: they have to sound good enough to stick with the audience, but it also has to sound like it is coming from amateurs. Yet Carney and Clark’s music manages to pull off that specific mixture. A climactic song at the end combines all the various styles of music we’ve seen these characters playing with, and the film’s best moment shows Flora and Jeff taking one of Jeff’s middling songs and improving on it bit-by-bit until it becomes a powerhouse of a song.
During my screening of Flora and Son, the audience clapped along during the final song, they sat through the credits to hear an additional song, and nary a person left the theater until they had captured every second of what Carney is doing here. That’s the beauty of what Carney has created here, a film that wraps you in and absorbs you with its loveliness and charm, to a point that you don’t want to leave its presence. Carney might be playing with the same tools that we’ve seen him use since Once, but Flora and Son shows that he’s only refining these tools more and more as the years go on, improving as a storyteller and creating crowd-pleasing films that are still challenging and beautiful in equal measure.