You know where you are with John Carney — and where you are is a guitar shop in a shabby Dublin back street. Ever since the writer-director broke through with 2007’s buskers-in-love hit, “Once,” he has stuck to small-scale, big-hearted romantic comedy-dramas about aspiring rock and pop musicians.
He has put enough diegetic songs in all of his films for them to count as musicals. And he has restricted himself to untouristy parts of Dublin — most of the time, anyway. “Begin Again,” starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, took him to New York, but he was back in Ireland for “Sing Street” in 2016, and he returns once again for the likable “Flora and Son.”
The title notwithstanding, his new yarn isn’t really about Flora and her son, but about Flora and everyone in her life. Played by Eve Hewson (“The Knick”), Flora stomps through Dublin with a high ponytail and a low-cut top. She dropped out of school at 17 to have a baby because she didn’t want an abortion — or to “get the boat to London”, as her friend puts it — and she now shares a dimly lit council flat with her sullen 14-year-old, Max (Orén Kinlan), who is one shoplifting charge away from a custodial sentence.
Neither of them is going anywhere fast. Flora works as a borderline-negligent child-minder and pinches money from her wealthy employers’ purses on her way out the door. But most of this money is spent in the same noisy club, where she drinks so much that, when a lech in a suit sidles up and growls, “Gonna be riding you later,” his prediction turns out to be accurate.
It was a bold move of Carney to cast Bono’s daughter in a role that should probably have gone to someone with more experience of Flora’s straitened circumstances, but Hewson — who recently joked about being a “nepo baby” — has the winning balance of earthy ferocity and goofy vulnerability to make a terrific character her own. Her face set in a contemptuous glower, she has a ball with Carney’s spiky dialogue, whether she is exchanging bracingly filthy insults with her ex-husband Ian (Jack Reynor), or confessing to a friend that she can’t help but envy the parents of children who go missing.
But Flora isn’t quite the indomitable force of nature she appears to be. “This can’t be my narrative,” she complains to the same friend (the screenplay can be hilariously rude and painfully clunky within the same scene). And sure enough, her narrative shifts when she finds an acoustic guitar on a skip and gives it to her son as a birthday present — the day after his birthday.
After Max treats this gift with the contempt it deserves, Flora decides she’ll learn to play it herself. Ignoring the sneers of Ian, a bassist who gave up his rock-and-roll dreams when he became a parent, she makes the inexplicable decision to shell out $20 an hour on online lessons with a beardy, plaid-shirted Californian dude named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
She also makes the inexplicable decision to stick with the lessons, even though Jeff is less interested in actually teaching her to play the guitar than he is in mansplaining the differences between the songwriting of James Blunt and Hoagy Carmichael. His patronizing sermons verge on being unbearable, but he is a sensitive, crinkle-eyed hunk, and Gordon-Levitt radiates waves of easy-going charm. Maybe Flora’s decision to pursue their lessons isn’t so inexplicable, after all.
Their transatlantic chats are a little too close to those had by Ethan Hawke’s American singer-songwriter and Rose Byrne’s English seaside museum curator in 2018’s “Juliet, Naked,” a romantic comedy adapted from a Nick Hornby novel. But Carney adds the pleasing fantasy element of having Flora’s computer vanish, in her imagination, so that Jeff appears to be sitting in the kitchen next to her. A couple of lessons in, he is asking her what she wants from music and she is telling him in no uncertain terms how to improve his songs. As they workshop melodies and lyrics together, the film becomes, on one level, an unofficial advert for Gordon-Levitt’s own online collaboration platform, HitRecord. But, of course, the possibility of another, more intimate type of collaboration is always in the air.
It is well-nigh impossible to resist Carney’s optimism and sincerity as he reminds us, once again, that music is life — even if the songs themselves, written by Carney and Gary Clark, don’t reach James Blunt’s level, let alone Hoagy Carmichael’s. But “Flora and Son” feels more like a scrappy demo tape than a polished album. The sentimental romance with an American dreamboat doesn’t quite fit with the sharp-tongued urban grittiness in other scenes; it isn’t easy to make a mash-up of Nick Hornby and Shane Meadows.
There are also enough underused characters, underdeveloped relationships and unfinished storylines to suggest that Carney wanted to compensate for the seven-year gap between “Sing Street” and “Flora and Son” by squeezing two or three films into one. As well as sketching Flora’s flirtation with Jeff, he covers her lingering desire for Ian, her resentment of her old school friends, Max’s criminal tendencies, Max’s efforts to impress a girl by mixing his own hip-hop tracks, Max’s unconvincing willingness to record a song with his mother (hence the title), and plenty more besides — all in 94 minutes.
If only Carney had either added 20 minutes or taken away two subplots. His film is a rollicking ode to working-class defiance and the joy of picking up a musical instrument. But there is a fine line between leaving some stories tantalizingly open-ended and stumbling through all of them in a hurry. By the time “Flora and Son” gets to its over-stuffed final scene, it has jumped the wrong way over that line.
“Flora and Son” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.