‘Flora and Son’ review: Joseph Gordon-Levitt rom-com or cynical Apple ad?

“Once” writer/director John Carney returns with another tale of love and music.

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Eve Hewson and Orén Kinlan star in

Eve Hewson and Orén Kinlan star in “Flora and Son.”Credit: Apple TV+

Maybe I’ll never get over Once. In 2007, Irish writer/director John Carney captured the world’s attention with a low-frills romance about a bearded busker (Glen Hansard) who finds a musical soulmate in a sheepish single mom (Markéta Irglová). It would have been enough that they won an Academy Award for their song “Falling Slowly” or that their onscreen chemistry pushed the low-budget film to a massive box office success, but it also inspired a real-life romance between its stars, a band from that union, and a Broadway musical based on the film that started it all. With such extraordinary success, maybe it’s unfair for me to hope Carney will recapture lightning in a bottle anytime he brings together Irish folk playing music and falling in love.

On the surface, his latest film, Flora and Son, has similarities to his biggest hit: a Dublin setting, a single mom (Bad Sisters‘ Eve Hewson) with a thirst to find a better life through music, a handsome guitar player (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who falls for her through artistic collaboration, and a collection of sentimental songs along the way. But to compare it to Once means Flora and Son can only suffer, coming off less as a feel-good love story and more like a convoluted advertisement for Apple products.

What’s Flora and Son about?

Eve Hewson stars in

Credit: Apple TV+

From Once and Begin Again, to Sing Street and now Flora and Son, Carney’s comfort zone is love stories where the heroes come together through music. For Flora (Hewson), music has always been a way to her heart — or into her pants. She’s introduced while dancing at a nightclub, in search of a one-night stand. 14 years before, she met Ian (Sing Street‘s Jack Reynor) when he was opening for Snow Patrol, as he’s quick to remind anyone who’ll listen. Their son, Max (Orén Kinlan), is now a teen, and the thrill of dating the wannabe rockstar is long gone. They’ve since separated, which does nothing to help curb Max’s vocal disdain for her and their low-income housing.

In a plea to make amends after a curse-laden row, Flora gives Max a second-hand guitar, which he rebuffs with a sneer. He’s not into acoustic music. So, Flora decides maybe it’s time to take matters into her own hands, leading her to online lessons with a hunky Los Angeles musician named Jeff (Gordon-Levitt). Naturally, over the course of learning to play guitar, Flora falls for Jeff. But Flora and Son isn’t just about this budding romance. It’s also about Flora using music to reconnect with her son, who is battling crushes and the impulse to shoplift. And it’s about how music becomes a tool for her to feel in control of her own destiny, as opposed to being forced to dance to everyone else’s whims.

The breadth of love in this romance is admirable. Regrettably, Carney can’t pull it all off. Every bit feels clumsily constructed, and some of it is outright unpleasant.

Flora and Son: Eve Hewson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s romance is not one to root for.

Eve Hewson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star in

Credit: Apple TV+

Flora is the kind of character who equates having no filter with keeping it real. As such, she calls her son a “prick” to his face, harasses her ex by asking him about his new girlfriend’s blowjob prowess, and — upon her first virtual meeting with Jeff — requests he take his shirt off for her viewing pleasure. While such brusqueness might be set up as a first-act character flaw from which Flora will grow, it is instead presented as her unique charm, a no-bullshit approach that makes her a prodigy at songwriting. But Jeff is just as annoying, as on their second meeting he makes it a point to criticize her taste in music, declaring he will “de-brainwash” her from “childish jingles” like James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful.” If there’s a pot for every lid, perhaps there is an ass for every asshole.

It’s possible these rough edges are meant to excite us, showing these are real people and not the glossy rom-com archetypes you might expect from the warm color palette and beautiful people filling every role. Perhaps Carney expects the chemistry between Hewson and Gordon-Levitt to smooth out these rough edges. To that end, he employs a clever device to melt away the distance of their virtual meetings — the screen between them disappears, and the scenes unfold as if they’re in the same room or on the same rooftop, under the same stars. It’s cute. However, the long-distance romantic drama Past Lives proved that scintillating chemistry — or savvy direction — can make even virtual dates titillating without such breaks from reality. And frankly, Hewson and Gordon-Levitt make an acceptable couple onscreen, but not a compelling one.

Another problem: The songs they play together aren’t that good. While Once left choruses tangled in our brains and melodies humming softly in our ears, turning them into hits, it’s hard to imagine such a path for the tracks in Flora and Son. The headstrong heroine might talk a big game about her chorus crafting, but the songs sung back and forth — while pretty and occasionally energetic — are not memorable.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. The first song is. But that’s been true since Tom Waits wrote “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” back in 1973.

Flora and Son undermines the heart of its story.

Eve Hewson and Orén Kinlan star in

Credit: Apple TV+

More successful is the love story between Flora and Max. At the start, they are at each other’s throats, with Flora resenting him for all the things her life is not because she became a mom at 17. But as music lessons give her a better understanding of herself — and her choices — she opens up to her son, understanding not only his flaws but also his dreams. Hewson favors a broad tone that plays oddly like she’s in a rom-com, and Flora and Son isn’t funny enough to pull that off. However, Kinlan favors a subtler performance, drawing us into the withdrawn Max, who is decried as a delinquent but is merely grasping for happiness the only way he knows how.

Unfortunately, the third act rushes the development of their bonding through musical collaboration with a mediocre montage whose true focus is just how cool Apple products are. You might be able to overlook the Apple logo on the computers that prove crucial to communication between lovers in the film. You won’t miss when the plot stops so that Max can preach about the incredible power of GarageBand, the Mac app that turns your laptop keyboard into an array of instruments.

Who needs therapy when you’ve got an Apple device?

Flora and Son is okay at best.

Much of this movie is bits you’ve seen before. The broad strokes of plot and guitar music echo Carney’s past films with a shrug. Its mother-child plot feels lifted from the heralded musical drama Wild Rose, where Jessie Buckley more convincingly played a single mum on the brink of meltdown and breakthrough. Incredibly, there’s a scene in Flora and Son in which a heartbroken heroine listens to Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” as if Love Actually doesn’t own that song and that exact cinematic moment. And so Flora and Son feels vaguely like a remake of some movie you might half-remember from years ago. There’s nothing fresh or all that fun here.

Ultimately, Flora and Son lacks texture. It’s a story of hardship and resilience, where everyone has flawless skin instead of being shown warts and all. It’s a tale of love and music that sweeps through the growth of a relationship and the work of songwriting in breezy montages that focus instead on the incredible communication and creative capabilities of Apple products. In the end, this supposedly aspirational tale feels deeply cynical, promising love and happiness can be attained by anyone — if they are beautiful and can afford a MacBook, that is.

Flora and Son was reviewed out of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie will open in select theaters Sept. 22 and be available on Apple TV+ Sept. 29.

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Kristy Puchko is the Film Editor at Mashable. Based in New York City, she’s an established film critic and entertainment reporter, who has traveled the world on assignment, covered a variety of film festivals, co-hosted movie-focused podcasts, interviewed a wide array of performers and filmmakers, and had her work published on RogerEbert.com, Vanity Fair, and The Guardian. A member of the Critics Choice Association and GALECA as well as a Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes, Kristy’s primary focus is movies. However, she’s also been known to gush over television, podcasts, and board games. You can follow her on Twitter.

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