“Flag Day” starts and ends with a high-stakes car chase, but that big pursuit is an anomaly. A minor-key movie less invested in grand gestures than the intimate two-hander at its center, “Flag Day” isn’t about crimes so much as the personal toll they take on innocent bystanders. Sean Penn’s first directorial effort since 2016’s “The Last Face” compensates for that misstep, if only just, with a sweet and rather straightforward father-daughter drama that lays out most of its emotional cards from the first act and offers few surprises along the way. In the process, however, it allows Penn to pass his talent to the next generation, with his daughter Dylan Penn taking the lead in a stirring turn that injects the central family tension with authenticity.
The younger Penn plays real-life journalist Jennifer Vogel, whose 2014 tome “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life” has been faithfully adapted by screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth into a vivid first-person account of the author’s most unusual family story. Vogel’s father, John, ran a reckless criminal lifestyle that ranged from ill-conceived drug-smuggling operations to producing $122 million in counterfeit bills, all of which he tried to keep a secret from his daughter as she drifted in and out of his existence. Initially drawn to her divorced dad’s seat-of-the-pants lifestyle before learning the details of crimes, Vogel found herself caught between affection for her father’s fragile existence and the desire to eke out her own path, as she faced a number of her own rough struggles on the way to young adulthood.
“Flag Day” tracks that rocky trajectory with Jennifer’s pensive voiceover as its guide, veering from John’s dramatic confrontation with police to the early days of their family life in rural Minnesota, when his marriage to Jennifer’s mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick) falls apart. At the time, adolescent Jennifer (played by Jadyn Rylee) and her younger brother (Beckham Crawford) seem to recognize their father’s flaws as a drunk, disingenuous mess of a man — but they also see a cultured, energetic, Chopin-obsessed alternative to their mean-spirited mother, and the potential to step into a vivid new world by following him despite their mother’s warning to stay away.
So begins Jennifer’s on-and-off relationship with her father, finding some measure of hope in their bond before realizing — more than once — his inability to clean up his act prevents any sustainable connection. As she gives him one chance after another, rejecting his efforts to make amends before cautiously letting him back in again, “Flag Day” risks redundancy more than once. But the central dynamic holds plenty of appeal as Jennifer continues to chip away at the paradoxes of her father’s life, and why she couldn’t shake his advances even when it was the most obvious thing to do.
Like Robert Redford’s perennial bank robber in “The Old Man & the Gun,” John’s romantic obsession with breaking the law runs counter to his constant desire to adhere to social norms for the sake of a better life. Penn plays up the character in a feat of overacting that doesn’t quite serve the material, with a jittery physicality and John Wayne-like growl that borders on parody. At the same time, it makes some measure of sense for the character to have certain larger-than-life attributes, given that he looms that way in Jennifer’s memories. Over the course of 20-odd years, Jennifer comes to understand her father in empathetic terms even as she resents his maniacal impulses and the way they catalyze her own sense of displacement.
Ultimately, “Flag Day” focuses on that journey, and settles into a meditative look at one woman’s attempt to develop her identity on her own terms. Despite the strange mopey detour of “The Last Face,” Penn has been a sturdy filmmaker for decades, and “Flag Day” brings him back to the subtler soul-searching he last explored with “Into the Wild.” The new movie even echoes some of the musical montages of “Wild,” and both find young adults risking homelessness in their attempt to mine a fresh start from scratch. In Jennifer’s case, that means heading west as she goes from life on the street to hacking her way into journalism school, even as her father’s shadow continues to encroach on her path to stability. The movie’s best sequences are driven by poetic images and Jennifer’s introspective narration, while poignant original compositions from the likes of Cat Power and Eddie Vedder add a slick musicality to the journey at hand.
In her first major lead role, Dylan Penn delivers a hard-edged performance steeped in a blend of frustration and simmering rage that eventually gives way to confidence as her character grows up. If it’s not an out-of-nowhere, star-is-born moment, that’s because “Flag Day” doesn’t have the scenes for it. Penn speeds through half-developed supporting characters (including bit parts by Regina King and Josh Brolin) and stumbles a bit on scenes involving Jennifer’s professional life (a subplot involving her exposé on pesticides feels like it’s cribbed from another story).
But “Flag Day” never veers too far from Jennifer’s reflective mood, and the complex process through which she comes to see her father as a microcosm of a larger problem. Born on the eponymous holiday of the American flag, John comes to resemble an aspect of U.S. identity steeped in the desire to survive at all costs, even at the risk of self-destruction. The movie never quite overplays that assessment, instead using it as the backbone for an affecting story that doesn’t overextend its thematic potential. And as a family passion project (Penn’s son, Hopper, also surfaces as Jennifer’s brother in adulthood), it never seems too precious for its own good.
Instead, “Flag Day” maintains its modest trajectory from start to finish, ending with a rather abrupt (albeit very true) twist that makes it clear Jennifer will never be truly free from her father’s shadow. But she’s keen on trying anyway, and the movie — like the book — feels like an extension of that journey. The movie has few tricks on offer but above all, delivers a solid reminder of Penn’s filmmaking talent, and welcome evidence that it runs in the family.
“Flag Day” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. MGM will release it in North America on August 13, 2021.
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