After he made “Once” nearly 20 years ago, writer-director John Carney apparently decided that he was the guy who made romantic comedies about uncertain lovers collaborating on music. Perhaps he is a cinematic equivalent of a man who sits up in the mountains, devoting himself entirely to the art of crafting shoes or making sushi. Or perhaps studios don’t want to finance anything from Carney that doesn’t fit those parameters. I don’t know, but that’s what Carney does, and here he is again with “Flora and Son,” which is slight virtually to the point of nonexistence, but agreeable. Its humility wears down your defenses to a point, though there is a thin line between humility and complacency.
Like other Carney movies, “Flora and Son” is about people who feel adrift gravitating toward music as an orienting, communal force. Flora (Eve Hewson) is a nanny who parties hard at night, releasing her frustrations by getting loaded and hooking up with strangers. Unexpectedly, given her age (early 30s) and temperament (youthful self-absorption), Flora has a teenage son, Max (Orén Kinlan), who commits petty crimes out of boredom and fantasizes about becoming whatever kids these days call rappers. Flora’s ex-husband, also Max’s father, Ian (Jack Reynor), is still vaguely in the picture. Ian once played guitar in a flavor-of-the week pop group, and that’s his thing that he wears with pride, claiming that Max can’t live with him because he’s working on “projects.” Ian has remarried but the new wife barely exists. We see her once, and she’s forgotten.
Some of this texture is good, offering a bit of grit as counterweight to the inevitable cheese. Flora and Ian have a nervy, realistically unresolved kind of chemistry, resenting one another while still clearly wanting to hop back in the sack together. Flora’s relationship with Max is even spikier: They talk like authentically rattled family members, with a venomousness that sounds nastier to an outsider than is intended. Carney has learned a trick from that British tapioca salesman Richard Curtis, of “Notting Hill” and Love Actually,” among others: a little bad language helps the treacle go down, giving the audience a sense of something as being edgier than it is.
Flora decides to take up a guitar, after happening upon one in a pile of junk and being struck with one of those stray thoughts that can turn lives on their heads. I love that Carney allows us to understand for ourselves that this is Flora’s way of trying to connect to her son and maybe even her ex, embracing one of their hobbies and talents. No one in the film ever declares that Flora is trying to bond with her family, but her emotional needs are lucidly sketched by Carney and brought to life by Hewson, who is enchanting and atypical. Flora isn’t a girl-boss coldly calculated by corporate salesmen as a means of reaching the female demographic, but a person; self-destructive, talented in an unharnessed way, clueless, empathetic, warm when she wants to be and capable of understanding that she’s dug herself a hole with Max via her forever-21 lifestyle.
Your mileage with “Flora and Son” will depend on how you respond to the high concept that Carney has devised. In a turn that suggests the plotting of a Nick Hornby novel, Flora begins taking guitar lessons from a guy online, Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and they bond over their disappointment with themselves as Jeff lectures her on the art of music. This is a pretext for a romance, of course, and Carney has the sense to soft-pedal these clichés. Their banter is gentle, wounded, and Hewson and Gordon-Levitt look and sound good together. But that’s all there is. Carney assembles his players and not much later the movie ends.
Carney can’t bear to put his characters through the ringer, and so their eventual coming-of-age roundelay feels unearned. Small, weird things do change people’s lives. I have no problem accepting that a broken-down guitar might save a party-animal from flushing her relationship with her son down the commode. The weirdness of that actually has a ring of truth. When you’re in a rut, calamities can roll of your back while arbitrary incidents haunt you. But Carney shrugs off the nightmarish undertow of the rut. Max goes to a correctional school at one point, and a few scenes later he’s back with mom.
Jeff is a recovering alcoholic who regrets his failed career as a musician and the time with his family that he wasted, and while Gordon-Levitt isn’t afraid to give that set-up weight, Carney keeps the character and the actor at a mellow distance.
I’m not asking for “Flora and Son” to turn into a Mike Leigh film, but pop movies can have stakes too. Watching “Flora and Son,” I thought of the similarly themed “School of Rock,” which is feistier than any of Carney’s films and far more direct about the pain it explores, and as a consequence is quite a bit more exhilarating when its characters manage to find their way into the light.
“Flora and Son” might be thin, but it’s a Sunday dinner with all the trimmings next to “No One Will Save You.” This is one of those films made by someone who is overly infatuated with a facile gimmick. A young woman, Brynn (Kaitlyn Dever), who lives in one of those spacious, fashionably rustic houses that only movie characters and people making over six figures yearly can afford, discovers that aliens are trying to get in her house. Well, there’s unconvincing character development first. Why are so many people in so many modern horror movies obsessed with the paraphernalia of the past? Brynn appears to be in her 20s, but dresses like a 1950s-era housewife and listens to a record player, learning old dances with mail order kits at night. I assume that directors love the way these sorts of details photograph, or something, but these contrivances are absurd.
The gimmick—other than the aliens, which soon begin running amok, although not nearly as amok as you might like—soon announces itself. Brynn never talks. She’s often alone, which tracks, but even moments in which speech might make sense are elided in variously faux-clever film-school ways. Photographs in the house supply exposition, a person interrupts Brynn just as she’s about to say something, etc. It gets old very quickly, especially when you realize that that is all that writer-director Brian Duffield’s got. The aliens are of the standard, spindly gray body, bulbous head, “take me to your dealer” variety, and they less standardly unlock Brynn’s mind and help her face the trauma-to-be-named-later. Flora has a guitar to get her through a rough patch, while Brynn has boring aliens.
The surprise of “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” Wes Anderson’s second adaptation of a Roald Dahl story, is in how long it takes the wily artist to reveal that it’s about a transfusion of the soul. For a few minutes, you are deliberately provoked by the filmmaker, wondering if you can handle yet another helping of his brilliant quirk, but by its end the film has become something beautiful and even nourishing.
“The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” spins on one of Anderson’s nesting doll narratives, in which an action ripples through multiple frames and stories. Ralph Fiennes, who gave perhaps the best performance to ever grace an Anderson film in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is Dahl, writing about a rascal named Henry Sugar (Benedict Cumberbatch), who learns a form of meditation from a series of documents about the adventures of an Indian circus performer, Imdad Kahn (Ben Kingsley). That sentence is a run-on designed to give you an idea of what it’s like trying to follow this movie for 20 of its 42 minutes. “Huh?” is an understandable impression, which Anderson intensifies with a device that’s baroquely alienating even for him. The narrators – Dahl, Sugar, Kahn, and a doctor of Kahn’s, Dr. Chatterjee (Dev Patel) – all speak entirely in voiceover. There is no conversation onscreen between characters. Spiels segue backwards in time, one tall tale merging into another until a moral jewel is revealed.
We hear from Imdad of his adventures at length, and since the film is named after Henry Sugar, whom we’ve already met, we may wonder why so much of this little movie is apparently going in a different direction. Anderson pokes your patience, empathetically linking you with Sugar, who hears of Imdad’s ability to savor minute moments of his life, granting him second sight, and thinks only of rigging card games for money. Sugar has our contemporary impatience to get to the point, while Anderson savors that old chestnut about the journey mattering more than the destination.
With his extraordinary frames within frames and in-camera editing, accomplished via sophisticated breakaway sets, Anderson fashions a cinematic stream of consciousness that approximates the flow of life, in which Sugar grows a soul accidentally, seemingly in real time. Don’t let the running time fool you: This is major Anderson, bobbing up like a golden buoy amongst the streaming current. Whether you find Anderson annoying or not, he is undeniably one of contemporary cinema’s most singular artists.
“No One Will Save You” and “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” are available on Hulu and Netflix, respectively. “Flora and Son” drops on Apple + this week.