2021, R, 108 min. Directed by Sean Penn. Starring Dylan Penn, Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Norbert Leo Butz, Dale Dickey.
REVIEWED By Trace Sauveur, Fri., Aug. 27, 2021
For a film based on a memoir not his own, Flag Day feels like a markedly personal affair for director/star Sean Penn. With a screenplay by Jez Butterworth adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s autobiographical Flim-Flam Man (about her life growing up with counterfeiter and criminal John Vogel), the film sees Penn situating himself in the shoes of John while enlisting his daughter Dylan Penn to fill the role of Jennifer (rounding out the family with son Hopper Penn in a smaller role as Jennifer’s brother Nick Vogel). Through telling the story of the Vogel family, Penn tries to make their troubles emotionally universal despite their specificities, and takes strides to pay tribute to his own daughter in the process.
Unfortunately, the end result is mostly hackneyed and overwrought. This is a weepy, labored melodrama that plays all of its emotional punctuations with the nuance of a brick crashing through a window. The sense of overbearing sentiment is exacerbated by maladroit formal choices. Filmed heavily in handheld with an excessive amount of extreme close-ups, it takes on a home-movie quality – which is to say amateurish in a way that hinders the narrative. Try and count the number of scenes ending with an awkward cross dissolve, or the amount of montages set to needle drops that practically describe their respective scenes through their lyrics.
Worse yet is how, though based on the lives of other people, it somehow manages to feel like a conceited vanity project for Penn. It’s hard not to see the echoes of his own real life, well-documented transgressions of violence and abuse within his depiction of Vogel. As John continually tries to make amends with his daughter only to ruin it via his habitual retreating back to his criminal lifestyle, you get the sense of Penn tapping into a narrative where he gets to acknowledge his past while showing people he’s capable of change. Just take a look at the scene where he insists so upon his reluctant daughter: “People can change!” It’s only when he takes the time to focus on Jennifer’s independent growth, as a lost, confused young girl slowly becomes a headstrong adult, that the film finds a genuine emotional core and offers fragments of what could have been.
Notably, Penn doesn’t let himself completely off the hook – there’s not exactly a "happily ever after" to be found here. But he still romanticizes himself as a catalyst of change and growth within his daughter that would be worth a groan even without his personal indiscretions. Flag Day desperately wants to be an impassioned testament to the lives of both Jennifer and Dylan, but is hardly ever able to escape the myopic lens of its craftsman.