Flag Day elliptically weaves itself around a big car chase, but that high-speed pursuit is far from what Sean Penn’s new directorial effort is. An intimate father-daughter drama, Flag Day isn’t so much about criminal cons, but emotional ones; the personal toll that such criminal activities can have on everyone around them. Working as Penn’s directorial follow-up to the rather disastrous The Last Face, his new film sees a passing of the torch, of sorts: His daughter Dylan Penn stars here as the real-life journalist Jennifer Vogel, whose 2014 memoir Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life works as Flag Day‘s source material. And that first-person account centers on Jennifer’s relationship with her father John (Sean Penn), who ran a reckless criminal lifestyle that ranged from ill-conceived drug-smuggling operations to producing millions of dollars in counterfeit bills, all of which he consistently attempted to keep a secret from his daughter as he drifted in and out of her life. It was throughout her life, that 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 struggles to adulthood.
Flag Day tracks that rocky trajectory with Jennifer’s slightly overblown 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, a young Jennifer (Jadyn Rylee) and her younger brother (Beckham Crawford) seem to recognize their father’s flaws as a drunk mess of a man, but they also see a cultured, lively alternative to their mean-spirited mother, as they then decide to follow their dad despite their mother’s warnings to stay away. And it’s right from there where the on-and-off relationship begins, as Jennifer realizes, numerous times, her father’s inability to clean up his act prevents any sustainable connection. As she rides a wearing cycle of reconciliation and disappointment, Flag Day risks redundancy more than once. But the central dynamic between the Penns holds plenty of appeal, as Jennifer continues to chip away at the paradoxes of her father’s life.
And it’s over the course of that twenty-something year saga, that 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. And Flag Day ultimately focuses on that journey, and settles into an intimately-scoped look at one woman’s attempt to develop her identity on her own terms. Despite the tone-deaf fiasco of a detour that was The Last Face, Penn has been a sturdy filmmaker for decades, and Flag Day taps into the vein of soul-searching he last explored with Into the Wild. (This movie even echoes some of the musical montages of that film, yet here they’re much more overwrought.) 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.
In her first major lead role, Dylan Penn delivers a performance that’s steeped in a blend of frustration and rage that eventually gives way to confidence as her character grows up. If it’s not an out-of-nowhere, star-making moment, that’s because Flag Day doesn’t have the scenes for it. Penn speeds hastily quick through half-developed supporting characters (including bit parts for Regina King and Josh Brolin) and stumbles quite a bit on scenes involving Jennifer’s professional life. But Flag Day never really veers far from Jennifer’s reflective mood, and the process through which she comes to see her father as a microcosm of a larger problem. Born on the titular holiday of the American flag, John comes to resemble an aspect of American identity steeped in the desire to survive at all costs, even at the risk of self-destruction. It seems pointed that John’s crimes, while definitely illegal, are also not the most amoral. Of course theft and counterfeiting is assuredly wrong. But the fact remains that in the moral balance of Flag Day, John’s criminal acts do not dissuade Jennifer from loving her father; even in his last moments, he remains something of a martyred hero. It feels potently American that someone who breaks the law can be an outlaw, not a criminal, an adventure-seeker, not a reprobate. And yet, that someone would need to resort to these measures also feels like the demise of the American Dream. (With Daniel Moder’s 16mm cinematography encapsulating a sense of intimacy and Americana.)
The fact that the movie never quite overplays that assessment, instead using it as the backbone for an affecting story that doesn’t overextend its thematic potential, is something admirable. 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 feels like an extension of that journey. The movie has plenty of missteps but above all, delivers some sense of a reminder of Penn’s filmmaking talent, and some evidence that it might be running in the family. A minor-key, heart-bruised drama, Flag Day rattles itself within a rather uneven structure yet still finds some vivid desperation and soulfulness to pull it up from fully being stuck in a repetitious gutter.
Flag Day is available in Theaters nationwide