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Flora, played by Eve Hewson, walks through Dublin in a jacket with a guitar case strapped to her back next to her son, Max, in the Apple TV Plus film Flora and Son Image: Apple TV Plus

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Apple TV Plus’ best new movie is about rocking out with your mom

Flora and Son plays like a cover band at your favorite dive

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

John Carney plays the hits. Ever since his 2007 breakout indie Once, which catapulted beloved singer-songwriters Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová to massive fame, Carney has made musical dramas his calling card. The Irish writer-director delights in films about people connecting with each other over music, falling in love with song as they learn to love each other and themselves.

But Flora and Son, his latest film, feels a bit like a song played by a John Carney cover band. Maybe it’s a really good cover band and I’m fond of it, but it still can’t replicate the creative spark of an artist who’s latched onto something magical.

Maybe that’s harsh, given the genuinely fresh perspective Carney uses to ground Flora and Son. Like its title implies, the film follows Flora (Eve Hewson), a single mom struggling through various odd jobs while raising her teenage son, Max (Orén Kinlan), a morose troublemaker she seems to resent. In an effort to keep him in the authorities’ good graces, she saves a guitar from the dumpster, intending to give it to him. When he rejects the gift, she decides to learn guitar herself, and strikes up a flirty long-distance friendship with Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a guitar teacher offering lessons from California via Zoom.

What follows is a family dramedy with a touch of romance, as Flora, caught up in the constant hustle of trying to get by, learns via her guitar lessons that she has something to say. More importantly, though, she learns her son does, too. Flora and Son excels in its humane yet prickly depiction of Flora’s relationship with motherhood. Flora resents Max for what he represents: her rash teenage years, where she hooked up with good-for-nothing bassist Ian (Jack Reynor), who is barely present in their split custody of Max. Max, of course, knows he’s a burden to his parents, and resents them for it.

Flora sits on the edge of a couch on a rooftop with a lit skylight in the background as she rests on a guitar and leans towards a laptop propped up crates in front of her in the film Flora and Son Photo: David Cleary/Apple TV Plus

There’s a raw frankness to this relationship that’s never too difficult to watch, thanks to Carney’s caustic sense of humor and Hewson and Kinlan’s deft performances fleshing out their turbulent relationship. Hewson plays Flora with hardscrabble charm — she’s a difficult woman, and motherhood sublimated the self-discovery she envied others for in her 20s. She clings to her guitar lessons as a chance to finally do something interesting, to be someone beyond her crushing obligations. The warmth of the film comes not when she begins to connect with Jeff, but when she realizes that Max similarly wants to do something worthwhile with his life, and might have something of his own to say through music.

Flora and Son is easy to love, and easy to forgive in its flaws. Its dramatic stakes feel disproportionate in a way that makes the whole affair feel a bit wobbly — when real-world misfortune befalls Flora and Max, the film kind of brushes it off. Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Jeff is the right kind of earnest — and purposefully cringe, I’d argue. But Carney’s decision to symbolize their connection by occasionally reframing their long-distance Zoom calls as in-person rendezvous often reads as overly saccharine.

That stylized approach isn’t as cathartic as what Carney does in Sing Street, which often shows its characters the way they imagine themselves to be, in the service of a big emotional beat. In Flora and Son, this bit of visual poetry doesn’t entirely connect to anything, perhaps because the real emotional arc is between Flora and Max.

Carney’s films aren’t particularly challenging to watch — they’re earnest, big-hearted stories that labor to convey what it’s like to find a creative flicker in yourself, nurture it with someone else, and learn with them that some things can only be said with a guitar and a broken heart. The connections his characters make with each other are acts of bravery: It’s hard to be vulnerable enough to make music, or to express your love to someone else. Anyone can do it, but doing it right — in a way that, as Jeff says at one point, inspires a visible change in the person in front of you — that’s something else entirely.

And that’s what makes opening up terrifying, whether it’s through words or music: the fact that you’re just as likely to fall on your face as you are to succeed. Trying is still noble, though. And I’ll keep watching as long as John Carney keeps trying.

Flora and Son is now streaming on Apple TV Plus.