There’s a moment midway through John Carney’s Flora and Son (released today on AppleTV+) that stands out as the film’s emotional and thematic turning point. It’s one of my favorite scenes from any movie this year.
The five-minute scene finds aspiring musical artist Flora (Eve Hewson) in her Dublin flat, clicking on a YouTube link from her guitar teacher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He had recommended she watch a 1970 performance of Joni Mitchell performing her classic “Both Sides Now.” It’s clear Flora hasn’t heard the song, and probably hasn’t listened to Joni Mitchell before (Flora’s tastes gravitate toward James Blunt and club music). As the song starts, Flora is half listening while multitasking, doing dishes with the laptop in the background on the kitchen table. But the music and lyrics she hears emanating from the Mac laptop arrest her. The camera slowly zooms toward the back of the laptop, reflecting the changing orientation of Flora’s attention. She sits down to watch the rest of Mitchell’s performance.
I was watching the movie on my own laptop (as many viewers will), and what I was seeing on the screen was a woman having an emotional connection because of something she was seeing and hearing on a laptop. And this was happening to me too. I was deeply moved watching Flora be deeply moved by what is a deeply moving Joni Mitchell performance—mediated through the internet and a laptop, a magical time capsule connecting two women separated by an ocean and a half-century of time. The scene is stunning for several reasons.
Finding Meaning in a Secular Age
For one thing, this scene features star-making acting from Hewson, the 32-year-old daughter of U2 frontman Bono. If the heart of great acting is reacting, then the wordless emotions in Hewson’s face as she reacts to the Mitchell song and video is a masterclass.
The scene marks a shift for her character—a club-hopping, angry, self-destructive single mom in Dublin grasping for something that can transform her life (and her son’s life) for the better. As she watches Mitchell’s performance, the song’s bittersweet lyrics—acknowledging regrets but also resilient hope—speak to Flora: Well something’s lost, but something’s gained / In living every day. Flora is inspired in that moment to go all in on her newfound musical dream, and the rest of the movie narrates this pursuit.
But in addition to its narrative significance, the remarkable “Both Sides Now” scene also encapsulates two of the movie’s answers to the questions raised by Flora’s plight: Where do rundown souls in a secular age (who are presumably uninterested in religion) look for spiritual meaning and existential fulfillment?
In this scene the film answers: technology and art.
Technology’s Empowering Potential
As “Both Sides Now” plays from Flora’s MacBook and draws her in, the device almost takes on an anthropomorphic presence. This computer hardware, in this moment for the isolated and lonely Flora, is a tender presence and a conduit of hope. When all else seems meaningless, a crooning voice from this Apple device pulls Flora back from the brink. It’s just one example of how personal devices have come to occupy an almost priestly role in our secular age.
The theme runs throughout the film, as many of Flora’s most significant connections come via computer technologies. She bonds with her son, Max (Orén Kinlan), via GarageBand collaborations. She forms a friendship (maybe more than a friendship) with online guitar tutor Jeff (Gordon-Levitt), who’s based in Los Angeles and conducts his lessons via Zoom.
Flora and Jeff’s relationship exists wholly through mediated screens. Interestingly, though, each time the pair shares a meaningful musical moment in the film, Carney introduces a bit of magic realism where the two are suddenly in the same room together. These fantasy sequences convey the real intimacy screen-based interactions can have, even as they underscore that something important—real, not imagined, physical presence—is nevertheless absent.
The prevalence and almost hallowed reverence given to Apple products (MacBooks, GarageBand, etc.) throughout the film is probably one reason why AppleTV+ paid $20 million to acquire and distribute the film. Similar to Apple’s recent, pseudoreligious (and quite bizarre) “Mother Nature” advertisement, Apple wants to position itself as more than just a capitalistic enterprise that sells you great products but as a lifestyle brand that helps facilitate your attainment of (eco-friendly) success and secular spiritual uplift. Centered as it is on a feel-good story of how technology empowers a downtrodden family and gives Flora and Max new ways to connect and find purpose, Flora and Son is, from Apple’s point of view, a clever bit of branding.
Art’s Alternative to Church
The second “religion substitute” proposed in Flora and Son is art—specifically music.
The Joni Mitchell scene underscores the extent to which art evokes the transcendent and, in a secular age, can feel like the closest one comes to touching God. The scene is a “holy moment” of art feeling like church.
The choice of “Both Sides Now” is perfect because it comes from the period in pop music history when the stylistic influence of church music was still obvious (see Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, and any number of soul artists) but the songs were hymns to love and life, not God. Watch 78-year-old Joni Mitchell performing “Both Sides Now” at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. Singing from a throne-like chair as a sort of ancient priestess of folk, and surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, Mitchell’s performance feels like a hymn sung for a post-Christian congregation.
Director John Carney has made a career of movies like Flora and Son, which don’t just celebrate music but elevate it to a life-changing, community-transforming, soul-enriching force that fosters connection and bridges divides (see Once and Sing Street especially). Sounds like what the church should be, doesn’t it? But the Irish director hails from and is working in the highly secular, church-skeptical context of Dublin—where something like pop music really does fill the gap previously occupied by congregational worship.
Thriving in Family
Ultimately, though, technology and art can do a lot of good but can’t bear the burden of existential purpose. Wisely, Flora and Son suggests something better than technology or art as an anchor for meaning in a secular age: family.
Flora and Son elevates music to a life-changing, community-transforming, soul-enriching force that fosters connection and bridges divides. Sounds like what the church should be, doesn’t it?
The film’s feel-good (if somewhat abrupt) ending finds Flora, Max, and Max’s father, Ian (Jack Reynor), playing on stage together at a Dublin bar: the first public performance of Flora and Son. The song they sing, “High Life,” is a personal anthem about a mother and son’s bond. The song’s language is messy and crass (like much of the language in the R-rated film). But there’s something good about a reconciled-ish family making music together, each appreciative of the other’s contribution. Flora, Ian, and Max have a long way to go at the end of the film. But the discordant notes of their broken family are starting to sync up again—and they’re enjoying the resulting harmony.
In the film’s final moments, Carney underscores the overflowing joy this family’s music brings to the wider community, with a curious roving shot that meanders from the stage, through the bar’s entertained audience, and then out onto the bustling Dublin streets.
The film’s ending seems to suggest, We’re all lonely, lost, and making messes of our lives. Let’s begin healing by making music with a few people around us, and see what flows out from that, for the good of others.
It’s not a bad place to start—recognizing we’re wired for community and creation that blesses beyond ourselves. Flora and Son is wiser than many films, in this regard. The big piece that’s missing, of course, is an explicit acknowledgment of Who wired us this way, and for what ultimate purpose. Truly satisfying meaning and lasting hope will be elusive without this missing piece. Still, it’s refreshing when films like Flora and Son take small steps in the right direction.