‘Flag Day’ Review: Sean Penn Directs a Powerful Father-Daughter Drama

As a filmmaker, Sean Penn has all the time had a flinty integrity, however the films he directs work so onerous to channel the values of ’70s movies — they’re moody and fatalistic, with furrowed brows, and transfer at a tempo of drop-dead deliberation — that early on, within the days of “The Indian Runner” (1991) and “The Crossing Guard” (1995), you could possibly nearly really feel the sweat of his downbeat advantage. I feel that modified when Penn made “Into the Wild” (2007), a movie as darkish as another movie in his desolation row (it was a couple of younger man withdrawing from the world — thoughts, physique, and soul), but it surely was directed with an open-eyed journey and ability that turned it enthralling. After that, Penn made his one and solely dud (“The Final Face,” which performed Cannes in 2016), however now he’s again with “Flag Day,” his sixth characteristic as a director in 30 years, and it’s one in all his finest.

It’s suffused with what you may name the Penn Darkness Issue. “Flag Day” tells the story of the richly troubled, twisted, and touching relationship between a father, John Vogel, performed by Penn as some of the scurrilous dads within the historical past of flicks, and his daughter, Jennifer, performed by Penn’s personal daughter, Dylan Penn, who offers a incredible efficiency. Early on, there’s a scene set in 1975, when Jennifer is 11 years outdated (she’s performed on this scene by Jadyn Rylee), and John is driving the 2 of them someplace on an empty highway at night time. He locations the lady on his lap within the driver’s seat, and we predict he’s playfully exhibiting her, for a couple of seconds, what it’s wish to drive. However then he principally says: I’m going to sleep — you drive for the subsequent hour. What he’s doing is so improper it’s humorous, however years in the past I don’t assume Penn would have staged a scene of this a lot dysfunction with this a lot levity.

John and his alcoholic spouse, Patty (Katheryn Winnick), have a fractious family that’s barely a house; for a lot of the film they’re residing aside, on separate islands of messiness. “Flag Day” relies on Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life,” and it’s about what it’s wish to develop up with a father who’s such a sneaky, flaky deadbeat liar that you just by no means know which method is up. John is a petty felony and self-styled “entrepreneur” who lives inside his delusions of grandeur. (He was born on Flag Day and thinks the vacation is about him.) He all the time has a dozen plans going, however none of them ever appear to return to fruition. He owes cash to everybody (together with some scary bikers), and when he’s attempting to do one thing as fundamental as preside over a household cookout, the flame on the barbecue is just too excessive, he turns the marinating of pepper steak right into a approach to bully Jennifer’s child brother, and he’s fixated on enjoying classical music, as if this had been going to infuse his youngsters with class.

Penn, sporting quite a few variations on sleazy facial hair, makes John a tin-pot home narcissist who one way or the other believes, at each second, that he’s doing the fitting factor. When he talks about some scheme he’s about to money in on, the primary individual he’s conning is himself. But John, for all his skullduggery, has a damaged, vibrant heat about him. He’s obtained a scraggly love for his children (the brother is performed by Penn’s son, Hopper Jack Penn), even when he can’t carry himself to behave it out by getting his act collectively. Penn, as a filmmaker, reveals a bone-deep understanding of the type of father or mother whose dramatic unhealthy habits can itself be a perverse beacon for his youngsters. It’s not that the habits is defensible; it’s deplorable. But John pours a lot of who he is into his raveled carny-barker effrontery that if you happen to’re his youngster, it’s virtually inconceivable to not have a sure kinship with that aspect of him. That’s what he’s supplying you with to carry onto.

“Flag Day,” set principally in Minnesota, sprawls over the interval from 1975 to 1992, and a part of what’s compelling about it’s that Penn has turn into an indelibly fluid craftsman who makes use of the leaps in time to infuse a narrative of devastation with lightness and curiosity. Even telling the story of this scarred, flawed, barely collectively household, Penn creates trustworthy notes of nostalgia, as in his use of Bob Seger’s “Evening Strikes,” or within the primal scene the place Jennifer, on the aspect of the highway, attracts a sketch of Blissful Freeway Harry, a type of tall waving industrial statues of roadside Americana. That picture stands in for Jennifer’s fleeting dream of getting a serene, contented, protected existence.

That, nonetheless, shouldn’t be the life that destiny handed her. In 1981, she’s a 17-year-old high-school hellion in black punk hair, snorting medication and performing out, and that is the place Dylan Penn’s efficiency begins to announce its energy. Up till then, Jennifer has struck us as a candy and moderately pensive lady, however Penn colours her in with jarring shades of grief, contempt, and scalded fury. Even right here, although, she by no means lets us lose sight of the bruised humanity inside. Jennifer has moved in along with her mom, however after Patty’s creep boyfriend sexually assaults her (an occasion that Patty turns a blind eye to), she has little alternative however to maneuver again in along with her father.

For some time, “Flag Day” turns into virtually a distorted parody of a feel-good Hollywood father-daughter buddy film. John retains developing with schemes and innovations (his newest: a jean stretcher!), however then, out of devotion to his daughter, he vows to depart the b.s. behind and get a straight job. He places on a swimsuit and tie and walks round with an important-looking briefcase, handing out his resume. Penn, going again to the ethos of movies like “Straight Time” and “The King of Comedy,” loves enjoying unbeautiful losers like this. It’s a part of his empathy, however he additionally flaunts the flamboyant theater of it — it’s virtually like a ceremony of exorcism for him, as if Penn had been enjoying the scurrilous males that he fears, on some degree, he may have been. We predict: Perhaps John is getting his act collectively. However John is fooling us the identical method he fools everybody. And as soon as Jennifer has his quantity, she’s executed. So, it seems, is he. Badly executed armed theft, full with Beatle wig, isn’t a rip-off you possibly can speak your method out of.

“Flag Day” is Jennifer’s story, and within the final a part of the film she comes into her personal, pulling herself collectively sufficient to check journalism. She winds up working for the Minneapolis different weekly Metropolis Pages, and he or she’s going nice weapons — till the day that she appears to be like out by way of the paper’s glass doorways and there, on the street, stands John. The way in which that shot is staged, it’s an excellent second of filmmaking. Penn now appears to be like frighteningly lean, with a modified jail haircut, however he’s additionally obtained a brand new monied glow. And what Dylan Penn’s face reveals us is the underlying tangle of emotion Jennifer is feeling: the love, the heartbreak, but in addition the sickening misery. The truth that her father has simply proven up like a stalker is itself a crimson flag. She will be able to now see proper by way of him. But this scoundrel father, who she has systematically discovered to not belief, is the one father she has. That’s the story “Flag Day” tells, and it’s the explanation the film hits such a common nerve. We’ve already had a flash ahead to what’s going to occur to John. The wrenching ache of it’s that he’s a counterfeit father who’s additionally the actual deal.



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