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Flag Day (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

FLAG DAY (2021)

Starring Dylan Penn, Sean Penn, Kathryn Winnick, Josh Brolin, Norbert Leo Butz, Hopper Penn, Addison Tymec, Jadyn Rylee, Beckam Crawford, Cole Flynn, Dale Dickey, Eddie Marsan, Bailey Noble, James Russo, Marina Stephenson Kerr, Rick Skene, Mitchell Nguyen-McCormick, Tom Anniko and Regina King.

Screenplay by Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth.

Directed by Sean Penn.

Distributed by United Artists Releasing. 109 minutes. Rated R.

You can pick your friends, but not your family, or so the old saying goes.

Flag Day tells a true story (or at least it is based on a true story) of a little girl, growing up to learn that her loving, dynamic father is not at all what she imagined. In fact, he’s rather sketchy; two steps before the creditors, constantly following get rich schemes, lying casually, spending over his means, not bothered by crossing lines into illegality or crime, eventually doing time for bank robbery and getting involved in counterfeiting money.

It’s not the most original story in the world. In fact, in full disclosure, I had a father who was somewhat similar, although he didn’t quite break the law nearly as blatantly as this guy did. Still, watching the film gave me uncomfortable flashbacks to my own childhood.

Of course, Flag Day is not supposed to be comforting. It’s essentially a pretty sad, very human story about family – not looking at clans in a sweet Frank Capra way. In Flag Day, family is a thing that connects us despite – not because of – deeper connections and understanding of each other.

Flag Day is based on the memoir Flim-Flam Man by journalist Jennifer Vogel, which explores her relationship with her con-man dad, John Vogel.

One of the problems with Flag Day is that it’s trying to convince the audience that Jennifer escaped her slightly tragic upbringing to become a successful journalist, and yet it does not really give us much of a bead on what she ended up doing. Even the “what happened to” chyron at the end of the film only vaguely says that she ended up writing for multiple publications – which is often a journalist’s lot in life, but that hardly inspires feelings of redemption. (A quick Google search leads you to believe that the book about her dad was the most noteworthy part of her career.)

For a tale of fathers and daughters, it is a nice touch that the film stars a father and daughter. Jennifer is a first-time major lead role for actress and model Dylan Penn, who had previously had smaller roles in Elvis & Nixon and Nick Jonas’ “Chains” video. (Early in her career, she also had a lead in a small, forgotten indie called Condemned.)

Her father is played by her real dad – famous actor, philanthropist and Flag Day director Sean Penn. (Dylan looks more like her mother Robin Wright, also a well-known actress). In another nice touch, the supporting role of her brother is played by her real brother Topper Penn. (Dylan and Topper are apparently also working together on an upcoming film called Aramingo Avenue.)

Flag Day traces Jennifer’s relationship with her family, from the time she was a young girl to a young woman. (Jennifer is played by Addison Tymec as a little girl, Jadyn Rylee as a teen and Dylan as a young woman.) The timeline runs from 1975 to 1995.

No matter how many times he screws up, disappears on them, and forces them to move, Jennifer still seems to idolize the guy. It’s only when he is sent to jail for bank robbery that she finally seems to realize that her dad is nothing but trouble. Still, even then when he is eventually released, she lets him worm his way back into her life.

Honestly, I get the bonds that fathers and daughters have, but I’m not sure why she keeps somewhat forgiving him, even when everything in her tells her not to. She throws over her alcoholic mother (Kathryn Winnick) long before that. While she eventually forgives her mother’s shortcomings, it is obvious that her mother had made significant progress as a human being before that reconciliation.

Her dad, not so much. Perhaps in the fictional narrative he likes to build around his life, however Jen has long ago learned that his stories are to be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps it’s because he refuses to be completely ignored – writing her dozens of letters from jail (most of which went unread), later calling her multiple times daily even when she does not answer and eventually, showing up at her work.

This is the seventh film which Penn has made as a director – and the first one that he has also starred in – and his skill behind the camera is mostly continuing to improve. The cinematography is often stunning. Some shots have the dreamlike sepia-toned immediacy of long-lost news footage or home movies.

Flag Day also has a terrific soundtrack, with original music recorded for the film by Cat Power, Glen Hansard and Eddie Vedder. (Of particular interest musically is Pearl Jam leader Vedder’s powerful cover of fellow nineties rock icon REM’s somewhat forgotten single “Drive.”)

Flag Day is a beautiful, well shot and acted movie – although occasionally they need to dial down all of the anger and emotion – and yet it leaves you feeling sad and a little hollow. You want to like it a lot more than you do.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: August 27, 2021.


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