“Flora and Son,” a satisfying demimusical from the Irish writer and director John Carney (“Once,” “Sing Street”), opens with an unexpected blast of techno. This kind of hard, sweaty beat propels our churlish heroine Flora (Eve Hewson), although by the end of the first sequence, it’s clear that the clubbing, and the booze, and the one-night stands have given her a perpetual hangover. Barely in her 30s, the self-destructive single mother is throwing away her future with an assist from her feckless ex, Ian (Jack Reynor, sputtering and hilarious), and their 14-year-old son, Max (Oren Kinlan), a thief and would-be rapper. It’s a testament to Hewson’s extraordinary charisma that her character can openly wish Max would get kidnapped and we root for her anyway. But since she’s saddled with the boy, Flora foists a junked guitar on him as a birthday present. “It’s a piano,” she jokes. The lad is unimpressed.
This is Carney’s saltiest ode to creative expression — and, peculiarly, his most relatable. Every one of his earlier leads would consider themselves musical. Not Flora. One night, when she’s drunk and watching “American Idol,” she signs up for cheap online lessons from a YouTube instructor named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a somewhat pretentious Springsteen clone barely scraping by in Los Angeles. (Jeff has, however, apparently stage-decorated his home with movie star-worthy lighting.) Flora explains that she just wants to impress men — specifically him, and would he also strip off his shirt? Jeff declines.
How is Carney going to convince the audience that his angry trainwreck can convert herself into a rock goddess? Carney knows that we’re uneasily expecting yet another underdog-turned-superstar crowd-pleaser, and so he teases us into a state of suspense. There’s an enjoyable irony in a script that celebrates folk guitar while structuring itself like house music — the whole running time feels like we’re on the dance floor with Flora waiting for the cliché to drop. At the same time, Flora and Jeff slowly co-write a love ballad that echoes through the movie, its evolving incarnations allowing the filmmaker to serve chewable lessons on the qualities of strumming versus plucking, the purpose of a bridge, and the difference between a ditty and a hit. Carney also works in a subtle dig at twee coffeehouse darlings with ukuleles and a blunter attack directed at, uh, James Blunt.
The film can be sloppy with its montages. A hip-hop video featuring Max is cut together more to make us laugh than as something he’d actually share online. (An image-conscious tween would cut those bloopers.) The buildup to the climax is rushed, and the final shot is, I guess, a hazy implication that music belongs to everyone? But Carney has already made that point sublimely. In the movie’s most delicate scene, Flora presses play on a Joni Mitchell performance that she’s been assigned as homework and turns away to wash dishes. Yet Mitchell’s voice gradually pulls Flora back to the screen. How beautiful to watch a song crack open a hardened heart. Not everyone can be a professional artist — but we can all welcome art into our lives.
Flora and Son
Rated R for raunchy talk and colorful parental guidance. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on Apple TV+.