Flora and Son (Apple TV+) is a heartfelt ode of sorts to the transformative power of music, introducing us to Flora (portrayed by Eve Hewson), a single working class mom in Dublin who takes up guitar lessons online, learning about the instrument and much more from laid-back instructor Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The Zoom calls between them grow to carry a shared caring and intimacy.
Flora’s original intent was not to be a student but rather to get her son Max (Orén Kinlan) to become more deeply engaged in music after she did some dumpster diving and came up with a banged up acoustic guitar, which was to be her belated birthday gift to him. Max rejected the present, figuratively flipping off his mom, reflecting a broken relationship that cuts both ways as mother and son take turns being hard on each other, often abrasive and borderline cruel.
But the guitar and the art and joy of music making and creative expression ultimately reconnect mother and child--with each other as well as the world.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Suffice it to say that the two-way street of art and life flows in Flora and Son--not just in the feature film's narrative but in the creation of that narrative. John Carney is the writer-director behind Flora and Son. And adding to his multi-hyphenate contributions is his work as songwriter and performer. Carney teamed with Gary Clark to write the score and original songs. Carney also played keyboards, synthesizers, piano and guitar for the film.
Music brings another dimension to Carney’s auteurship. And fittingly music enhances and has a transformative power on his writing and directing. Over time in his filmmaking endeavors, Carney feels he has grown to better grasp the beauty of incorporating music into drama. Writing a script and music together makes for a harmonious construction and shaping of a narrative, akin to what he describes as “a musical theater thing.” Meshing story and music--using music to tell the story in nuanced ways--gives people something they can relate to as both viewers and listeners.
While he loves the traditional musicals created in the 1930s and ‘40s, and perfected in the ‘50s, Carney does not want to replicate them today. Those musicals were modern in their time, not nostalgic. Similarly he wants his work to be modern and relatable today--not tempered by nostalgia. Flora and Son aims to show the healing of a contemporary relationship through music but not by making what would be considered a movie musical. Carney observed that a prime part of his task is to “disguise” the musical aspect “quite well in my films. I don’t want people to be scared off.” The music instead is a way into the characters--and a way for the characters to connect with each other. At one point in Flora and Son, Jeff shares one of his own songs which Flora is critical of but eventually helps to shape into a touching duet which bonds them further. This was among the songs penned by Carney and Clark.
While he’s long known the importance of casting, Carney affirmed that he felt it most profoundly in Flora and Son. A director, he related, likes to think he/she/they control the proceedings but Flora and Son made him realize more than ever that “a movie is only as strong as its leading actor.” Carney praised Hewson for her remarkable contributions to the film.
“Certain people are born to play certain roles,” said Carney. “I can’t think of another actor who could do what she did [as Flora].”
Carney recalled first meeting Hewson through her dad (Bono) some years ago when she wanted to become an actor. Carney later saw her in TV roles and found her to be watchable and funny. Carney and Hewson then bonded on a Zoom call when discussing Flora and Son. Carney shared that once he was 20 minutes into the Zoom call, he knew that Hewson as Flora would be a “blessed” piece of casting. She became “the keystone of the whole movie,” he said.
Carney noted that Hewson tapped into the “funny” in Flora’s character, which was key. He observed that Flora could be “funny even when things are serious.” He believes that there are pitfalls to playing a character too seriously. “Great humorous acting leads you to emotions you didn’t know were possible. That’s what she [Hewson] did in this movie.”
Flora and Son adds to a body of work for Carney which includes such films as Begin Again, Sing Street and Once. The latter won numerous accolades, including an Oscar for Best Original Song, and was adapted for the stage--earning eight Tony Awards. Sing Street garnered a Golden Globe nomination. Carney is also the creator and showrunner of the anthology series Modern Love, for which he directed multiple episodes. Additionally Carney is the former bass guitarist of the Irish band, The Frames.
Flora and Son was released theatrically last week and launches today (9/29) on Apple TV+.