Daughter of renowned actor Sean Penn, actress and model Dylan Penn gives it her all in her father’s latest directed feature Flag Day. Penn, who also has excelled as a film director in the past with such acclaimed films as The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995), The Pledge (2001), and Into the Wild (2007) guides his daughter in delivering a breakthrough performance in Sean Penn’s sixth feature film as director in his melodrama, Flag Day which is a true story and adaptation of the life of Minneapolis writer and reporter Jennifer Vogel’s memoir Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life.
In the starring role, Dylan gives an emotionally vulnerable and commanding performance as Jennifer Vogal, the daughter of John Vogel (co-starring Sean Penn) of an infamous con artist and counterfeiter. Chronicled in the course of three decades, Dylan has many challenges that involve sexual abuse from her step father, obstacles from her enabled mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick), and prejudices against her during her college and early journalism ways because of who her father was. Sadly, Flag Day doesn’t quite measure up on a technical and narrative level
The messy, choppy, and patchy work by Penn leaves a lot to be desired. Penn is certainly a solid storyteller with a poetic eye, and you can see this in his previous directed films. You can see his influences here with Malick, from the Badlands inspired voice-over to landscape cinematography, hands touching wheat fields, and sunsets where you can easily sense Penn admires Malick. However, just as Into the Wild was choppy and inconsistent, Flag Day holds even greater faults. The final result is an uneven drama, scattered with many montages with Eddie Veddor’s soundtrack, lazy camera work, and too many emotional outbursts that indeed gives Penn and his daughter the opportunity to deliver some emotional onscreen synergy together. Many of their scenes are affecting and moving, but the film idles into aimlessness due to impassive melodrama with many missteps in the narrative storytelling that holds the material back from being truly resonant. The film is also way too overstated with washed out and grainy images to heighten the fragmented memories and anamorphic perceptions Jennifer has of her father, in which the film never gets too much in depth of John’s arson, cons, and other grifter crimes.
With a stronger first half than a second hour, the film’s dramatic momentum succeeds early on. The earlier scenes of Jennifer are played by Jadyn Rylee as the younger teenager, Addison Tymec as a child, and Dylan Penn as the older teenager into her adult years. The scenes of the young child feel romanticized and more fragmented as they should, which John appears larger in life as he builds a home, listens to classical music, and buys new cars on borrowed money that leads to his own demise. Eventually Patty divorces Patty, which leads to Jennifer and her younger brother Nick (played by Beckam Crawford as younger Nick, Hopper Penn as older Nick) living with their mother. Yet, bitterness and tension arises as Jennifer is violated and almost sexually abused by her stepfather Doc (Norert Leo Butz) which leads to Jennifer leaving home and moving in with her father.
Some of these scenes and moments in the film flourish in the moment as it becoming a redemptive story between father and daughter, as Jennifer begins to realize who her father really is. During the beginning, attempting to impress Jennifer as a hard-working father he attempts to get a stable office job, but it doesn’t take long for John to resort back to his swindling ways, and Flag Day ends hitting many of the same notes throughout the film. Some of these moments are the true highlight of the film.
However, the film also fails to hold strong characterization, as we never really understand or sympathize the nature of the father-daughter relationship other than hearing repeated conversations about John’s depravity and moral decline. Rarely do we ever get a glimpse of how John’s behaviors impact one another, and there is so much here for deeper pathos that never finds the true potential the material has going for it.
Just as he often does in his films, we see A-list actors appear in very brief roles that include Josh Brolin, Regina King and Eddie Marson that take you out of the film in just how finite their roles are–and none of these great actors are given much dramatic weight to be a scene stealer.
While not a disaster, there are some admirable merits to be found with Flag Day. Sean Penn always brings a charisma to each of his roles, and it’s always a pleasure to see him act no matter what the role is. No matter what role he plays, he embodies each character with a rich authenticity and he is never afraid to lose himself in the art. Even if it means chain-smoking in many scenes and enduring numerous awful haircuts. Dylan Penn also showcases herself as being a really strong actress, her scenes with her father do hold some rich dramatic weight. Let’s hope we see her in even more roles in the coming years. Showcasing Sean and Dylan is certainly a double bill, and their onscreen chemistry again brings something extra to the experience. A real life father and daughter playing a father and father is certainly a nifty dimension. Sadly on a stylistic and narrative the film doesn’t quite ignite.