Flag Day

Directed by Sean Penn

Screenplay by Jez & John-Henry Butterworth

Starring Dylan Penn, Sean Penn, Katheryn Winnick, Josh Brolin, Dale Dickey

Sean Penn has long been recognized as one of the finest living actors and the best of his generation. Since his twenties, Penn’s dedication to his craft has earned him deserved comparisons to Brando, De Niro, Pacino, and James Dean, while his performances in films such as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, “The Falcon and the Snowman”, “At Close Range”, “Carlito’s Way”, and “Dead Man Walking” are the stuff of acting legend.

That it took until 2003’s “Mystic River” for the actor to be recognized by the Academy with a win for Best Actor is astounding, as Penn spent the previous twenty years doing work that should have earned him a shelf of Oscars. 

As a filmmaker, Sean Penn never seems to get the full respect his films warrant. His first film (1991’s “The Indian Runner”) was well received by some critics but never found full release and exists as a curio that many filmgoers have not seen nor heard of. It is a powerful and mature film done in the style and respect of filmmakers such as Hal Ashby and John Cassavetes, two filmmakers who inspire Penn as a director.

1995’s “The Crossing Guard” was uneven but still a rather potent character piece featuring some of the finest acting Jack Nicholson has ever done. Most critics dismissed the film and it was shuffled to a quick death on video store shelves. Nicholson reunited with his director for the 2001 cop drama “The Pledge”. While critically respected and featuring another intensely personal performance from Jack Nicholson, there was no push from its studio, and the film quickly disappeared from cinemas. 

Penn’s respect as a director finally came with 2007’s “Into the Wild”. Critics were unanimous in their praise for the film and Penn’s directing and adaptation of John Krakauer’s book. The film earned two Oscar nominations, seven Critic’s Choice award nominations, and was voted the best film of the year by the American Film Institute.

Sadly, his next film (2016’s “The Last Face”) was far from his best. It was a dramatically bumpy mix of world social issues and romance that didn’t always work, and critics pounced. It was loudly booed at its Cannes premiere.

Sean Penn has returned to his full filmmaking (and acting) skills with this year’s “Flag Day”, one hell of a character piece that solidifies his place of one of our most interesting filmmakers.

Written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (based on journalist Jennifer Vogel’s memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life”, “Flag Day” is the true story of Vogel’s father John and his near life-long career of scams and cons that destroyed his family and his life. 

The film stars Sean Penn and Robin Wright’s daughter Dylan Penn as Jennifer (Jadyn Rylee plays her from 11-13 and Addison Tymec is the character as a child). 

The film centers on Jennifer’s unhealthy devotion to her father that becomes a year by year awakening of what kind of person he truly is. 

Whenever his life failed to pan out, John would leave and would be absent for long periods of Jennifer’s childhood. As a con man who was always scheming, his daughter was constantly in the dark regarding what her father did to make money. 

Jennifer’s mother (a very good Katheryn Winnick) tells her that John’s real failure goes far beyond his deceptions. What breaks everyone is that John dangerously believes his own lies. Explaining the film’s title, Jennifer’s grandmother (Dale Dickey) says, “You never trust a bastard born on Flag Day.”

Through the structure of flashbacks, we witness the erosion of the way Jennifer sees her father. As she gets older, it becomes clear that her dad is a delusional loser who will risk his family for a deceptively earned buck.

Winnick makes the most out of her few moments as Jennifer’s mother Patty. The character becomes an alcoholic early in her daughter’s life and it clouds their relationship. After marrying (and looking away from) a lecherous husband, Jennifer quits school and bolts, with no future and drug issues in tow. 

She lands at her father’s, which is a shaky reunion at best and becomes the beginning of the end regarding their already fractured bond.

The drama in the screenplay is heavy but not heavy-handed. This is a deeply emotional story that is at once devastating and hopeful.

Sean Penn is perfect as John. This man was an absolute loser and failure as a parent, husband, and human being. Yet there is something true in his soul, his love for his daughter. Penn coveys this perfectly through his naturalistic performance. It is easy to believe that, although constantly doing the wrong thing, John has true love for his kids. Penn’s son Dylan plays the son, but we don’t see much of him, as the focus is Jennifer and how her father’s ways affected her own path. Just as John will anger you for leaving his family yet again, Penn will force you to feel his heartbreak for leaving and the shame he has for knowing he cannot properly provide for them. 

Josh Brolin has a very good small role as Patty’s brother. The actor has a small moment with John when he drops off the kids and basically warns him not to fuck up anymore. Brolin smiles at Penn but it isn’t a happy smile. His words are a threat. He wants to kill this man for what he has done to his sister and niece and nephew’s lives. In only a few moments of screen time, Josh Brolin helps us forget of his time in Marvel films and reminds us how great of an actor he is.

Dylan Penn is the find here. The actress performance is outstanding. As Jennifer, she is a girl who fights her own demons to grow up and move past the destruction of her family and youth. This is a committed performance full of realistic emotion. Her raw and naked honesty is the kind you find in the films of John Cassavetes. I do not know if it is in her blood due to who her parents are, but Dylan Penn is an emotional force who goes toe to toe with her father. This is powerful work and, as of this writing, she has my vote for the best performance by an actress I have seen this year.

Working with cinematographer Daniel Moder, Sean Penn crafts his film in the style of filmmakers such as Hal Ashby, Cassavetes, and Terence Malick. Much of the memories are grainy (as the film is set in the late Sixties and early to mid-Seventies), but the filmmaker allows the imagery of the landscapes to come through, seen through the eyes and mind of young Jennifer, although it all becomes a deceptive beauty for the character.

Penn’s direction keeps the focus where it belongs, on the characters. We become so involved in John and Jennifer’s lives that we are seduced every time her father promises he is going to take the right path. Although we know the outcome, we want the best for Jennifer and hope (against hope) that her heart will not be broken again. 

“Flag Day” is an honest film. The emotions are earned through good writing and two exceptional performances. The drama hits hard as the film’s focus stays on Jennifer. She is a daughter who is molded by the impossible pain of having a father who loves her but does not know how to show it truthfully and her inner battle to find the loyalty in her heart to forgive him, time and time again. Jennifer’s struggle comes from her father’s unforgivable sins. She cannot trust the only father she will ever know. John knows what he does, is unrepentant, and continues to betray. Behind him is his daughter Jennifer, who swims against the refuse of destruction he leaves in his wake.

Set to a beautifully somber soundtrack of new songs from Cat Power, Eddie Vedder, and Glen Hansard, Sean Penn’s excellent “Flag Day” is a family drama of the highest order.

R, 109 Minutes. MGM, Ingenious Media, Olive Hill Media