January 30, 2023

Sundance 2023 Reviews: “Flora & Son,” “A Little Prayer” & “The Pod Generation”


FLORA AND SON (Apple):  John Carney’s Irish dramedy was (with Fair Play) the commercial bonanza of Sundance, reportedly with a $20M pricetag.  It isn’t hard to see why the studio and streamer checkbooks came out, since Flora and Son was one of the festival’s unabashed crowd pleasers.  Like most of Carney’s work (Once, Sing Street, Begin Again), it’s a warmhearted tale suffused with the love of music.  Flora (Eve Hewson, in her second star-making performance of the past 12 months after Bad Sisters) is a single mom in Dublin raising teen son Max (Oren Kinlan) with limited help from her amiable ex Ian (Jack Reynor).  In an attempt to pull Max out of his cycle of disciplinary problems at school and elsewhere, she refurbishes a used guitar for him.  When he disdains it, she half-heartedly decides to pursue the instrument herself, with the help of Zoom tutorials from Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a not-very-successful songwriter in LA.  Flora’s online flirtation with Jeff deepens in an unexpected way as she discovers her own gift for music, and that bond serves to bring together everyone in her life.  Carney isn’t one for subtlety, and his insistence that music conquers all can feel overly twinkly.  In Flora and Sons, though, he maintains some level of grit before the emotional pieces start falling into place, and he’s greatly aided by Hewson, who’s a delight throughout, conveying Flora’s increasing depth of feeling without losing her gleeful rudeness or giving in to sentimentality.  Gordon-Levitt, who’s recently been playing characters who are rather difficult to like, as in Super Pumped and his own Mr. Corman, here relaxes into Carney’s comfort zone of sweetness and is tremendously appealing.   Flora & Son may not be complex but it’s surefooted, with tuneful songs by Carney and Gary Clark throughout.  Its only goal is to make viewers happy, and it will leave most with satisfied grins and tapping toes.

A LITTLE PRAYER (Sony Classics):  Angus MacLachlan’s film is both moving and somewhat frustrating.  Set in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, it concerns a family headed by Bill (David Strathairn) and Venida (Celia Weston).  Bill runs a local business that employs his son David (Will Pullen), who lives with his wife Tammy (Jane Levy) in a guest house on the property.  A Little Prayer comes to center on the relationship between Bill and Tammy, who hide their concerns about the family behind cheerfulness and circumspection.  It turns out, in fact, that there are rather dark undercurrents running beneath the placid family as seen by the town, and eventually Bill and his daughter-in-law will have to face up to them.  Circumspection is one thing in a character but another in a filmmaker, and MacLachlan seems to step around the issues of his story as gingerly as Bill and Tammy do, with the result that while some of the family’s problems are implied early on, others feel undeveloped when they pop up late in the story.  The film is boosted by wonderful performances by Strathairn and Levy (MacLachlan also wrote Junebug, and Levy’s role has some resemblance to Amy Adams’s breakout character there), although Pullen and Anna Camp, who leaps in as David’s over-the-top sister, are left somewhat flailing by their sketchy roles.  A Little Prayer feels unwilling to venture as deep as it needed to go.

THE POD GENERATION:  In a near-future, technology and capitalism have reached a point where women can be relieved of the need to physically experience pregnancy:  for a fee, they can work full-time while their fetuses gestate in a portable pod that the mothers can carry with them, or leave at home or with the mega-tech company that offers the service.  In Sophie Barthes’s soft sci-fi satire, rising executive Rachel (Emilia Clarke) is offered the off-body pregnancy by her employer, while her botanist husband Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at first resists the idea, but then bonds with the podded fetus.  Some aspects of Barthes’s vision are well realized, like the design of the pods (although the attempt to make the Brussels production location sub for New York fails so badly they should have just left the setting unspecified), and the insinuating, smiling threats of the tech company (embodied by Rosalie Craig) when it meets any resistance or even questions.  Other points are annoyingly vague.  For example, although one of the reasons for the service is so that working women won’t be “distracted” by pregnancy, there’s no mention of what’s supposed to happen once the children are actually born.  (Barthes also steers clear of any political questions that come to mind when a system is put into place to nurture a pregnancy literally from the zygote stage.)  Major plot points, especially toward the end, are unexplained or illogical, and we have to take much of Rachel and Alvy’s marriage on faith.  Despite those flaws, there are some sequences that have some real snap, especially when Rachel is dealing with other parents, and a few fine bits of physical humor involving the pods.  Ultimately, The Pod Generation wasn’t quite ready for delivery.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."