Flag Day, 2021.
Directed by Sean Penn.
Starring Sean Penn, Dylan Penn, Hopper Penn, Josh Brolin, Katheryn Winnick, Eddie Marsan, Dale Dickey, Bailey Noble, James Russo, Norbert Leo Butz, Adam Hurtig, Cole Flynn, Jadyn Rylee, Beckam Crawford, Addison Tymec, and Regina King.
A father lives a double life as a counterfeiter, bank robber and con man in order to provide for his daughter.
The way a film is advertised and what ends up being mean nothing to me, but it’s hard to shake the feeling, whether it’s from marketing materials such as the official plot synopsis or the execution of Flag Day itself that director Sean Penn (casting him and his real-life daughter Dylan Penn in that same dynamic) and writer Jez Butterworth crafted a hot mess based on the life story of journalist Jennifer Vogel and her tumultuous, dysfunctional, and abusive upbringing, that’s unsure if it wants to follow her or her father John and his numerous criminal schemes. Watching the actual movie, it’s clear that the priority perspective is Jennifer, but there are also so many storytelling gaps, abandoned plot threads, disappearing characters, random montages set to somber songs, and time jumps that it feels like at some point in the editing room Sean Penn chopped down most of his scenes.
In theory, it’s a smart move to frame John’s appalling and unstable behavior from the effects and toll it takes on Jennifer. Yet, it has resulted in patchwork that’s no longer stitched together, rather torn apart. Flag Day is a movie that not only barely has anything to do with the titular holiday (it’s the day John was born, meaning in his eyes America is celebrating him, with Dale Dickey also showing up for one scene exclaiming, “never trust a bastard born on Flag Day” never to return, it can’t even be bothered to detail the crimes in a logical way.
What’s frustrating about this is that when the film does step away from shouting matches, bombastic arguments, and aggressive melodrama to sit and study father and daughter, particularly at a point where Jennifer is a young adult (also where Dylan Penn takes over portraying the character, already appearing a bit too old to play an 18-year-old, but then again, distractingly, no one looks their age here) and runs away from a household of trauma (her mother Patty, played by Katheryn Winnick, doesn’t seem too concerned that the drunken stepdad is stumbling into Jennifer’s room at night attempting rape) to reunite with her estranged dad, there’s a relatively engaging and layered reading of their bond. John also has a habit of getting himself into physical trouble and leaving his children (Jennifer also has a younger brother named Nick) behind with their alcoholic mom, so she’s fully aware she might be let down again within a split second.
Earlier childhood sequences also establish that John, for all of his flaws and despicable behavior (whether it’s hostile verbal late-night fights with Patty or the ease at which he can run away from responsibilities regarding his family), does have a loving heart. He encourages Jennifer to sketch, fills her mind with a future of travel, and has the perfect summer home masking anything but a happy family. Credit also goes to the child actors embodying younger versions of Jennifer. It’s another jarring transition as the daughter ages into a rebellious arsonist pushing back against her mother (she also drastically changes her appearance to black hair and something more punkish), but at least Flag Day finds a temporary groove as Jennifer throws everything she has into making a new start with her father.
That clean slate involves transparency and honesty, and John gets away from his failing illegal businesses (that are never really explained) to work a more conventional job. Unfortunately, that’s not easy, considering John is a habitual liar. However, that prompts Jennifer to unexpectedly stop trying to change the man (ironically, there’s a moving scene where John pleads that people are capable of change), choosing to enable him. Maybe rewarding that lie brings Jennifer a false sensation of fulfillment and idyllic family happiness, whereas every single facial expression from Sean Penn drips with shame. Most of his horrible decisions seem to come from a misguided place to provide for his daughter, completely misinterpreting that all she wants is some semblance of everyday life with carefree joy, much like her memories before life went on to hell. Of course, this drama is accentuated not only by the real-life father-daughter acting combination but the fact that Dylan Penn is outstanding when onscreen with her father, (less so when it comes to narrating and other situations)..
Nevertheless, it’s not long before Flag Day gets shaken up again, this time with John sent off to jail and the overall narrative trajectory truly spiraling into incoherency. There’s a montage showing Jennifer spending some years as a nomad trying to get her life together and then seriously putting in the effort to become a journalist (another life goal her father always supported). That comes with a subplot involving an investigation into toxic water, although thankfully, the story has some sense not to become a different movie entirely. Still, other aspects are pointless and shockingly mishandled, like Jennifer making amends with her mother and reconnecting with her brother (now played by a bland Hooper Penn) without the story earning it. Josh Brolin is also in this movie as the uncle that has one scene (again, it’s mind-blowing how many characters seemingly pop up as important only to disappear), but is never forgotten as someone we hope to see as a guardian for Jennifer and Nick. Instead, it’s a gigantic waste of time for the actor.
Sean and Dylan Penn are a terrific match capable of rising above atrocious plotting. It’s a shame that the script is interested in chronicling far too much of Jennifer’s life, as scaling the story back to let father and daughter simply act opposite one another with more distinct character and narrative focus would have elevated Flag Day into something compelling. Dylan’s career has the potential to go somewhere great, whereas this movie goes downhill fast and, just when it seems like it has recovered, takes one final plunge.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com