No doubt someone, somewhere is complaining that John Carney – too long away from the big screen – keeps making variations on the same film. It is 16 years since Once began its journey to the Academy Awards. Begin Again in 2013 and Sing Street in 2016 also played with song as a redemptive force. To be fair, the Irish director has, just as Stanley Donen or Jacques Demy managed before, shaped his own genus within the wider musical phylum. The films have grit. But they are at home to sentimental release.
Flora and Son is the least-expansive Carney feature since Once. If we must compare it to a Joni Mitchell song – and the film gives us little other option – it is closer to Big Yellow Taxi than to one of those epic jazz things she struggled with in the later 1970s. Eve Hewson brings bad news about time by playing (just about) mathematically plausible working-class mother to tearaway teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan, son of busy actor Laurence).
We begin with Flora falling about a Dublin nightclub and ending up with an unsuitable partner. Later, we see her working as nanny to Amy Huberman’s posh kid and, before exiting the even-number-postcoded house, whipping €20 from her employer’s purse.
All of which sounds a tad grim, but the dissolution is played for the sort of laughs that Julie Christie or Lynn Redgrave generated when behaving similarly badly in the 1960s. For all the contemporary location shooting, we are never in any doubt that we are dealing with movie-movie reality. Later, she fixes up an abandoned guitar and donates it to Max for a belated birthday present. He flings it in her face. Flora wonders if she might learn the instrument herself. Forget it, Jake; you’re in CarneyLand.
Eyebrows will, understandably enough, be raised domestically at news that Eve Hewson, raised in Killiney as daughter of Mr Bono Vox, is to play an inner-city mum with sticky fingers. The accent is not absolutely perfect. But the rising actor has enough charisma and the film is sufficiently heightened for such objections to be safely parked for an airy 90 minutes.
Both Begin Again and Sing Street moved towards big moments (indeed, the latter ended a little like a disaster movie). In contrast, large parts of Flora and Son get away with showing the eponymous protagonist in a room alone. Eager to make something of her son’s birthday present, she scoots through online guitar teachers, eventually settling on an amiable Californian who could only be called Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They begin by sparking off one another, before something a little like flirtation emerges.
Carney cooks up a romance so gossamer in its digital remoteness that it barely exists. Jeff is a bit of a mansplainy music bore, but the film – like Flora – seems prepared to tolerate that as a mild aberration of early middle-age. Not everyone will be on board for him pressing Mitchell’s Both Sides Now on Flora and for her giving in so totally. Not everyone buys Gene Kelly singing along to invisible orchestras. A degree of letting go is here required.
Those hoping for a traditional love story may be disappointed. Though the joshing between Jeff and Flora is charming, the more important emotional arc uses music to connect unmoored mother and aggrieved son. Hewson confirms her capacity to fill every square inch of a screen. Kinlan deftly hints at the vulnerability behind performative aggression. Helped out by fine support from Carney stock company members such as Jack Reynor, Marcella Plunkett, Don Wycherley and Keith McErlean, the leads confidently bring home a smallish film with a sizeable heart.
Limited release in cinemas from Friday, September 22nd. On Apple TV+ from Friday, September 29th