John Carney’s Flora and Son is one of the Best Films of 2023

Movie poster of Flora and Son, directed by John Carney, premiering in theaters and Apple TV+ September 29

Fans of Irish writer/director/songwriter John Carney (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street) can rejoice again in having another strong entry in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. Flora and Son delivers that sweet spot that Carney is king of, successfully blending music and melodrama in a way that, pardon the pun, hits all the right notes in that perfect blend of happy/sad. But this time Carney stretches himself a bit by delving into dance and hip hop, which also alludes to a generational divide: youth who previously picked up guitars are now more likely to be making beats on a Macbook. While the film builds slowly and doesn’t quite have the showstoppers some of Carney’s previous works have, it sticks the landing so hard with its finale that it just leaves you feeling everything in a wide array of emotions.

Our protagonist is Flora (Eve Hewson), a single working-class Dublin mom to Max (Orén Kinlan), whom she had as a teenager. Estranged from Max’s dad, Ian (Jack Reynor), Flora is struggling to keep Max out of jail and connect with him. Finding a beat up guitar in a dumpster, she fixes it up and offers it to him as a gift, which he rejects, but she stubbornly decides instead to try to learn how to play it herself. She connects with Jeff (Joseph Gordon Levitt) a Los-Angeles-based guitar tutor online and there’s some immediate sparks. Flora crosses a few inappropriate lines, but undaunted, Flora continues to learn, even collaborating with Jeff on a song as they grow closer to one another.

At the same time, she’s trying to be there for Max, eventually discovering he’s also making music on his laptop. While his is more beats and hip hop, they begin collaborating, with her even helping shoot a rap music video. It’s beautiful to see Flora try and fail to connect with people, over and over. She’s a mess, but we’re always rooting for her.

Flora and Son ends up being a really beautiful tribute to family, to music, and to the messiness of life. While it’s not as immediately striking as Carney’s previous films, it’s still right in the pocket of what he’s known for. Carney again writes many of the songs, and is joined by the always adept Gary Clark, Jr. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt also delivers a wonderful supporting performance that is vulnerable, aloof, and charming in equal parts.

There are a few downsides, as the film certainly earns its R rating with language and a decent amount of sexual content. No nudity, but still a decent amount of talk that would be uncomfortable to watch with a lot of younger viewers. Speaking of talk, more than any of Carney’s previous films, this movie leans in heavily to its Irish brogue. One argument to watch this at home on Apple TV+ would be that you can turn on subtitles, which may be a necessity. The most unrealistic thing in the entire film is despite major portions of the film taking place over Skype between Flora and Jeff, he never once asks her, “What? What did you say?” Flora’s accent is thicker than the head on a Guinness. It’s also equally as amazing.

Flora and Son gets a hybrid release both in a handful of theaters and on Apple TV+ on Friday, September 29. Apple’s release plan mirrors its similar film, CODA, in 2021, and the similarities could not be more striking. It’s worth noting CODA ended up nabbing numerous Oscar nominations, and wins for Best Picture and Supporting Actor. Given Gordon-Levitt’s performance, don’t be surprised to see him in the mix come awards season. And Carney himself is an early favorite for Original Screenplay. Given the Academy’s ranked-choice voting system, if there is a pitched battle for Best Picture between Oppenheimer, Barbie, The Color Purple, etc, if Flora and Son can be everyone’s second or third choice (the way CODA was), it could be a surprise winner.

Whether streaming or in a theater, treat yourself to Flora and Son as soon as possible.

4 1/2 stars out of 5