In “Flora and Son,” Eve Hewson plays the feisty, irrepressible title character, a single mom living in Dublin with 14-year-old Max (Orén Kinlan), a grumpy troublemaker who largely ignores his mother when they’re not lobbing vulgarities at each other in their cramped apartment.
Of course, it’s Ireland, so the vulgarities sound kind of – adorable? And “Flora and Son” is the latest charmer of a wish-fulfillment fantasy from John Carney, the writer-director responsible for such similarly high-spirited confections as “Once” and “Sing Street.”
Fans of those movies know what they’re getting in “Flora and Son,” but even at its most formulaic, it exudes Carney’s familiar values of warmth, playfulness and let’s-put-on-a-show moxie. Propelled by a funny, charismatic turn by Hewson (who infused such unpredictable energy in the terrific Apple TV Plus series “Bad Sisters”), “Flora and Son” is a feel-good movie that largely earns its sentimental uplift, one sick burn and soaring musical number at a time.
Here, those songs are largely written by Carney and Gary Clark, and they range from folk ditties to a couple of rap-singer-songwriter bangers. When we meet Flora, she’s out clubbing, dancing, drinking, flirting and largely living the life of the arrested adolescent she clearly is. Lost and going down a perilous road of petty crime, Max is so unmanageable that, at one point, Flora admits she sometimes fantasizes about him going missing (through no fault of her own). She sends him to spend some time with his father, a once-semi-famous musician whose band opened for Snow Patrol. While he’s with his dad, Flora scrounges up a battered guitar in hopes that Max might take it up as a hobby. Soon enough, she’s taking online classes with a Yank named Jeff, a serious, super-cute guy in Los Angeles who is charmed and alarmed by the chaos merchant who’s fetched up on his digital doorstep.
Jeff is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who possesses a lovely, gentle singing voice. His early rendition of Tom Waits’s “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” brings Flora almost to tears, and she’s not the only one. (In addition to Waits, the filmmaker delivers loving nods to Joni Mitchell and Hoagy Carmichael.) Jeff and Flora embark on a cross-continental flirtation that Carney stages with graceful touches of magical realism, moving Jeff seamlessly from screen to actual scene: These are delicate, affecting grace notes in a film that – like the filmmaker’s previous work – believes in music as a vehicle not just for healing, but for holy redemption.
As a profane, slightly blowzy modern-day Holly Golightly, Hewson develops a seductively credible chemistry with Gordon-Levitt; the musical set pieces are just as satisfying, especially a music video Flora and Max produce together to get the attention of a neighbor he’s crushing on. Spiky, salty, nervy and dead-to-rights funny, Hewson gives Flora’s deadpan facade just enough cracks to make her vulnerable in all the right places. If “Flora and Son” is essentially a fairy tale – a little too pat here, too perfunctory there – it’s still honest, in its own idealized way. And, as Flora herself might observe, we can all use a happy ending right around now, can’t we, luv?