John Carney made his long-awaited return to Sundance, and to the movies, with the Sunday premiere of Flora and Sonhis first feature since 2016’s Sing Street.
A musical charmer in the mold of filmmaker’s previous hits, Once and Sing Street, both of which premiered at Sundance, the movie had the audience laughing, cheering and wiping away tears. That and the standing ovation that followed were likely welcome news to the movie’s sellers at WME Independent since it is one of the more prominent acquisition titles.
Flora features a breakout performance — scratch that, a star-making performance — by Eve Hewson, who already has a musical background with her father being U2 frontman Bono, and who plays a struggling and immature young mother of a troubled teenager (Oren Kinlan). She discovers a discarded guitar that she grabs as a late birthday present for her son, who rejects it, so she decides to learn how to play herself. With the help of a slightly jaded online guitar instructor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the woman finds renewed purpose and a renewed connection with her son thanks to her guitar.
Carney was a whirlwind of energy before and after the screening — at one point during the post-screening Q&A, the moderator noted that there was time for one last question and the writer-director said, “No, we have time for tons” — and went on a humorous segue about how to make good use of the Internet, which he views as mostly bad.
“Don’t put a song on fucking Twitter the minute you do it, send it to the girl you wrote it for. That’s a good use of the internet. Don’t get validation from a thousand of your friends, get the girl or guy to like you, because you wrote something for that person. Use FaceTime or Zoom to fall in love and be honest and forget about the small talk and go deep. That’s a great use of a broadband connection.” Then he paused, took a breath, and said, “I can’t even remember what the question was.”
And while Carney was the Energizer Bunny, Hewson and the actors were effusive with their praise for the filmmaker and his ability to write characters they just had to play. And Kinlan provided the capper for the Q&A by performing the rap he does in the movie.
Describing her mother role as “a wild, beautiful broken nutjob,” Hewson recalled thinking, “There’s no way they’ll give that to me.”
“And then we Skyped or Zoomed or whatever and I said, ‘I want to do it.’ Which I never say in meetings. And which I’ll always say from now on,” she added.
Carney gave insight into his writing process and why he inserts music so much into his writing. It has to do with boredom.
“Here’s how I write,” he began. “I sit at the computer and I write a scene. And then I get bored and then not to smoke… I have a seat with wheels on it and I push myself away from the desk to the piano or the guitar. And I fiddle around with the guitar and then think, why not put that in this, because this is really boring. I’m easily distracted and don’t have great concentration so I put music into me to make it interesting for me. And that little piece of music will inform the piece of writing and then the writing will inform the music.”
His moviemaking process, however, terrified some of his actors, with Gordon-Levitt regaling the crowd about the songwriting process, which he described as being “fucking terrifying” at first.
He said it’s a very normal thing for an actor to know what the lines are going to be or what the song is going to be. And they had a recording session scheduled and when the actors showed up, he asked what song they were going to do. And Carney’s response was, ‘Well, let’s talk about it.’
“And we talked about it and for the next eight hours, we wrote a song together. And I’ve never had a filmmaker invite me into the process quite as intimately and spontaneously as John. At first, it was so different for me that I felt uncomfortable. But by the end, I was like, he’s doing this on purpose. This is how he captures lighting in a bottle.” Then the actor turned to Carney and added, “I’m a real admirer of how you do it.”
The movie focuses on the travails of the mother, and Carney said it was his own mother who was the inspiration for the story, whose script he wrote during the pandemic. “I thought I’d dig deep and go into my own heart, and I thought about my relationship with my mother, when I was a little thug. And I said, ‘Would you buy me a guitar?’ And she did. That was the impetus to write something personal that wouldn’t run out of meaning for me.”
And toward the end, as he gushed about Hewson’s range — “Eve plays the guitar badly, she has to play the guitar well, she has to dance, she had to punch her kid in the face, she had to curse, she has to move her body, she has to act brilliantly…” — he also singled out the actress’ mother, Ali Hewson, who sat in the audience, leading an applause for that mom and for all the moms out there.
It was fitting that when the Q&A ended, and the burst of audience members who rushed to praise the actors and snap some quick photos thinned, Hewson rushed to her own mother and settled in for a big, smile-inducing embrace.
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