Flora and Son. That’s the title. But let’s be honest: The word and is about the only thing that holds them together.
Let’s start with Flora. She’s a thirtysomething Dubliner who lives in a shoebox apartment and works odd jobs, keeps odd hours and brings the odd man home from the club. Her life is a turnstile of shot glasses and hangovers. Oh, and there’s some stranger she calls a son in that shoebox apartment, too.
When one of Flora’s one-night beaus asks where he is, Flora says, “Dunno. Supposed to be in school. Could be anywhere.”
The son is sullen Max, and he could be anywhere. Well, within a square mile radius in Dublin, that is. It’s not like the 14-year-old can drive. Not unless he steals a car, which—given the boy’s rap sheet—isn’t out of the question. He sold his bike to buy a computer. He uses his computer to play games and watch porn. And when he’s not playing games or watching porn, he’s fighting. Or stealing something. Taking one step closer to a bit of time in the clink.
“One more offense, and you’ll be behind bars,” a Dublin police officer tells him. And the officer suggests that a hobby might do the boy good.
So when Flora spies a guitar in a nearby dumpster, she figures she’s found that hobby: Get it fixed up for a pittance, stick a bow on it and wish the son a very happy birthday. A day late, sure. But still, it’s the thought that counts.
But for Max, the thought counts for nothing. He has no interest in playing the guitar, which he tells Flora in so many words (most of them curse words). Flora, in so many words, calls her son an ungrateful wretch. And she nearly throws the guitar out the window.
But why let a perfectly adequate, recently fixed guitar go to waste? Flora decides that if Max doesn’t want to learn to play it, maybe she will. So she looks up a decent, admittedly attractive guitar teacher on YouTube—one who lives all the way in Los Angeles. She even decides to cough up 20 bucks for an online lesson.
Flora doesn’t know it yet. Max has no clue. But that old guitar, that washed-up L.A. musician, that connection to a city 6,000 miles away might bring two people living in the same shoebox apartment closer together.
Flora and Son—the word and shoved in the middle like a piece of chewed gum, holding the two together by nothing more than genes and spit. But infuse the and with note and tone, rhythm and rhyme, and the and just might become musical mortar. Might turn them—after 14 years—into a family.
We’re obviously dealing with a pair of flawed people here. Flora is loud and profane and would likely get herself thrown out of many a megachurch before the second worship song. Max is just as vulgar—the sort of kid you’d call a bad influence if he talked with much of anybody at all. You’re not going to point to any of these Dublin characters and say, “Now there’s a role model.”
But as the story goes on, Flora and Max discover—much to their own surprise, really—that they care for each other. Even love each other. Without hopefully giving much away, Flora becomes Max’s relational rock, a port in his stormy adolescence. Flora slowly becomes less self-absorbed and begins to make real sacrifices for her surprisingly talented son. Music becomes a catalyst for them to mend their own frayed lives, and with that mending comes the ability to be able to see each other more clearly, and with more charity.
Jeff, the YouTube guitar teacher in Los Angeles, proves to be the catalyst for that healing relationship. His perpetually sundrenched California studio is something of a metaphorical counterpoint to the movie’s primary setting of grim, gray Dublin. He is a ray of light in Flora’s world, and he treats music almost like magic—as a catalyst for personal growth and exploration. He tells her that music can change someone.
And as the story unfolds, music does change Flora—that and her relationship with Jeff. She softens. Deepens. And when Jeff talks about his own rocky experience as a father, he says that he began to repair the rifts when he learned “to put them first.” Flora internalizes that lesson, and then externalizes it for her son.
Jeff encourages Flora to think of music as more than a driving beat on the dance floor. In fact, he believes a song can be transcendent: “A three-and-a-half-minute pause in time in which to do something wonderful, something touched by God.”
“Oh, no, are you some sort of Christian evangelist dude?” Flora says.
A song lyric includes the line that someone’s a “saint, angel, devil, sinner.” Another talks about seeing “Jesus rolling down Sunset [Boulevard],” and it ponders what happens “if God takes me and leaves you here.”
Flora is called a “muse,” referencing one of nine Greek goddesses.
Flora was—and maybe technically still is—married. She and Ian had sex out of wedlock and conceived Max when Flora was just 17. While Flora and Ian separated a long time ago, and even though the two seem to dislike each other quite a bit these days, Flora still comes on to him—using incredibly ribald language and suggestions and reminders of what they used to do together. (I won’t go into detail here, but trust me—Flora’s reminiscences can be incredibly graphic.)
She’s prone to taking guys home from the club as well. We see one such guy in Flora’s house—a guy Flora didn’t even like that much at the club and likes even less now. And if we take Flora at her word, her first foray into guitar lessons was motivated by sex, as well.
Flora flirts with Jeff during their first lesson: Jeff terminates the lesson after Flora asks him to sing a song with his shirt off. Flora sends an apologetic email and a picture of her breasts to “balance things out again.” (She lifts her top and takes a quick picture of her bra-covered chest.) In her second lesson (where she dresses in a cleavage-baring outfit, clearly to attract Jeff), she confesses that she wants to learn to play the guitar because she thinks it’d make it sexier (which Jeff admits can be a driving force to learn how to play an instrument). Then in a subsequent lesson, she asks when she’ll be able to write a ballad powerful enough to “get me husband back.”
But over time, their relationship deepens. They talk earnestly during their lessons. And when they kinda-sorta write and sing a song together, it’s almost as if Flora experiences an intimacy she never realized existed. “It’s a bit like we just made love or something,” she says. “I do feel a bit naked right now.” Flora doesn’t deny it when a friend suggests that she’s fallen in love with someone 6,000 miles away, and Jeff develops feelings as well. They make tentative plans to meet.
Max has a crush on a girl named Samantha, who regularly dances in tight, revealing clothing in a local rapper’s homemade videos. (She’s joined by another young woman who’s similarly clothed.) Max suggests that she’s sleeping with the rapper. (And keep in mind, if Samantha’s the same age as Max, that’d make her 14.)
As mentioned, Max also admits to watching porn. One evening, Flora opens the door to his bedroom as Max is in bed, apparently shirtless and watching something on his phone. When Flora asks what he’s doing, Max says, “You don’t want to know.”
We hear some references to the female anatomy. Max brags about his (nonexistent) prowess in bed during a rap song. He also compares himself to Irish MMA star Conor McGregor, “Only not as gay.”
When we first meet Max, he’s sporting a black eye and admits to fighting. His mother slaps him hard across the face during an argument (he’s not surprised, suggesting it’s a fairly common occurrence). Elsewhere, she punches him a bit more gently. Max is roughly grabbed by another adult. A police officer warns the adolescent that he’d likely be raped if sent to a correctional facility.
Ian (who was once part of an up-and-coming band) shows Max a video set in New York. When Max asks why there are police officers in every shot—often roughing up band members—Ian says that it’s the United States, insinuating that that’s just what happens there.
Flora admits to Jeff that she’s angry all the time. She says she nearly strangled a biker with his own chain. (The referenced confrontation, which we see, didn’t actually feature any violence.) We hear references to abortion—specifically, the abortion that all of Flora’s friends pushed Flora to get when she was pregnant with Max. She fondly thinks about the peace and quiet she might get if Max disappeared. Oh, she’d be sad, she amends. “But sometimes I wouldn’t mind so much.”
About 70 f-words, another dozen s-words and a couple of uses of the c-word. We hear about every other English profanity you can think of popular on both sides of the Atlantic: “A–” (and Irish variations of the word), “b–ch,” “h—,” “pr–k,” and the Irish crudities of “bloody” and “b–locks.”
Flora and Ian meet to talk one morning, and Flora asks him if he’d like some wine.
“Wine? Flora? At 10 in the morning?” Ian says, aghast. “No.” Then he drinks one of several huge beers.
Both clearly like their liquor—and other substances as well. The first time we see Flora, she’s downing several shots at a club to the point of severe inebriation. (The next morning, she doesn’t seem to remember whether she took someone home with her or not.) She drinks elsewhere, too, and blames her bad behavior during her first guitar lesson on drinking too much wine. (Jeff demands she lay off the booze for their second lesson; she still drinks, though not as much.) Flora smokes frequently, too. And she admits to Jeff that she was “stoned for most of [Max’s] childhood.”
But we don’t see her taking illicit drugs at this point in her life, and Flora tells Ian to not spend all his time with Max playing video games and smoking marijuana. When Ian misses an important appointment, she blames it on the weed. We see Ian smoke something, though whether it’s tobacco or marijuana, it’s not quite clear.
During a neighborhood get-together, Max spends time sipping from the adults’ unfinished drinks. (Another young boy does the same thing elsewhere.) A local bar hosts an open-mic contest, and we see several people in attendance drink and smoke. We hear references to street drugs and whiskey in songs. Jeff admits that he was drunk during the birth of both of his children, and he spent the next 10 years intoxicated as well. (He’s now sober.)
As mentioned, Max has been known to steal things. He apparently started when he was in “short pants,” and some in the law enforcement community express wonder that he hasn’t been thrown in a correctional facility yet. When an officer asks him if he’s stolen anything lately, Max says, “Not that I got caught with.” He is caught stealing something—and being forced to deal with the consequences.
When there’s a threat of Max going into a correctional facility for a time, Ian suggests that it might be nice for him and Flora. “This would give us the time we’re talking about,” he suggests. “For your dreams, and my various projects.” He seems to be a disinterested parent: Even when he’s with Max, Ian mainly talks about himself. (The same could certainly be said of Flora for much of the movie, too.)
Flora references having diarrhea.
When Flora asks Jeff how many chords she needs to know to write a killer power ballad, Jeff tells her that it’s not in the chords. It’s in the feel. To illustrate, he sings a song: First, he sings and plays it simply strumming the chords straight—and it sounds like a perfectly passable country song. Then, instead of simply strumming chords, he gently arpeggiates them—plucking one or two strings at a time—his voice softer, slower.
The song was the same. The chords were the same. The difference? “You can see the brushstrokes.” The brushstrokes of experience, of 15 years of heartbreak. The brushstrokes that paint a picture of a life. And all that life is poured into a few bars of music and a few gentle words.
You can see the brushstrokes in Flora and Son. It is hopeful, poignant, crass, profane. It made me laugh, it made me tear up—even as I counted f-word after f-word and watched the characters’ drinks go down. While jazz was one of the few musical genres not represented here, you could compare the film to a daring, improvisational jazz artist like Thelonious Monk—an artist capable of breathtaking beauty and jarring dissonance, sometimes within the same stanza.
During Jeff’s first lesson with Flora, he looks at the dark kitchen in which she’s sitting and asks if it’s evening in Dublin.
“No, it’s just permanently this grim,” Flora tells him. How true that is for much of the movie. Flora and Son has issues—so many issues. But so does the world. So do our own stories. Without light, without hope and dare I say without God, they too are permanently grim.
The movie tells us that we can find light, and hope, in unexpected places. It reminds us that even the most broken relationships just might be healed. And while that instrument of healing here is music, not God, I’m reminded how close music is to God’s own heart—how his throne is surrounded by singing, how He calls His followers to make a joyful noise.
Apart from Him, not all the noises are so joyful. And that tension, that taut paradox between love and alienation, between joy and hopelessness, lies at the core of Flora and Son.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.