As a filmmaker, Sean Penn has always had a flinty integrity, but the movies he directs work so hard to channel the values of ’70s films — they’re moody and fatalistic, with furrowed brows, and move at a pace of drop-dead deliberation — that early on, in the days of “The Indian Runner” (1991) and “The Crossing Guard” (1995), you could just about feel the sweat of his downbeat virtue. I think that changed when Penn made “Into the Wild” (2007), a film as dark as any other film in his desolation row (it was about a young man withdrawing from the world — mind, body, and soul), but it was directed with an open-eyed adventure and skill that turned it enthralling. After that, Penn made his one and only dud (“The Last Face,” which played Cannes in 2016), but now he’s back with “Flag Day,” his sixth feature as a director in 30 years, and it’s one of his best.
It’s suffused with what you might call the Penn Darkness Factor. “Flag Day” tells the story of the richly troubled, twisted, and touching relationship between a father, John Vogel, played by Penn as one of the most scurrilous dads in the history of movies, and his daughter, Jennifer, played by Penn’s own daughter, Dylan Penn, who gives a fantastic performance. Early on, there’s a scene set in 1975, when Jennifer is 11 years old (she’s played in this scene by Jadyn Rylee), and John is driving the two of them somewhere on an empty road at night. He places the girl on his lap in the driver’s seat, and we think he’s playfully showing her, for a few seconds, what it’s like to drive. But then he basically says: I’m going to sleep — you drive for the next hour. What he’s doing is so wrong it’s funny, but years ago I don’t think Penn would have staged a scene of this much dysfunction with this much levity.
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John and his alcoholic wife, Patty (Katheryn Winnick), have a fractious household that is barely a home; for most of the movie they’re living apart, on separate islands of messiness. “Flag Day” is based 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 like to grow up with a father who is such a sneaky, flaky deadbeat liar that you never know which way is up. John is a petty criminal and self-styled “entrepreneur” who lives inside his delusions of grandeur. (He was born on Flag Day and thinks the holiday is about him.) He always has a dozen plans going, but none of them ever seem to come to fruition. He owes money to everyone (including some scary bikers), and when he’s trying to do something as basic as preside over a family cookout, the flame on the barbecue is too high, he turns the marinating of pepper steak into a way to bully Jennifer’s kid brother, and he’s fixated on playing classical music, as if this were going to infuse his children with class.
Penn, sporting numerous variations on sleazy facial hair, makes John a tin-pot domestic narcissist who somehow believes, at every moment, that he’s doing the right thing. When he talks about some scheme he’s about to cash in on, the main person he’s conning is himself. Yet John, for all his skullduggery, has a broken, vibrant warmth about him. He’s got a scraggly love for his kids (the brother is played by Penn’s son, Hopper Jack Penn), even if he can’t bring himself to act it out by getting his act together. Penn, as a filmmaker, shows a bone-deep understanding of the kind of parent whose dramatic bad behavior can itself be a perverse beacon for his children. It’s not that the behavior is defensible; it’s deplorable. Yet John pours so much of who he is into his disheveled carny-barker effrontery that if you’re his child, it’s almost impossible not to have a certain kinship with that side of him. That’s what he’s giving you to hold onto.
“Flag Day,” set mostly in Minnesota, sprawls over the period from 1975 to 1992, and part of what’s compelling about it is that Penn has become an indelibly fluid craftsman who uses the leaps in time to infuse a story of devastation with lightness and curiosity. Even telling the story of this scarred, flawed, barely together family, Penn creates honest notes of nostalgia, as in his use of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” or in the primal scene where Jennifer, on the side of the road, draws a sketch of Happy Highway Harry, one of those tall waving commercial statues of roadside Americana. That image stands in for Jennifer’s fleeting dream of having a serene, contented, protected existence.
That, however, is not the life that fate handed her. In 1981, she’s a 17-year-old high-school hellion in goth black hair, snorting drugs and acting out, and this is where Dylan Penn’s performance begins to announce its power. Up until then, Jennifer has struck us as a sweet and rather pensive girl, but Penn colors her in with jarring shades of grief, contempt, and scalded fury. Even here, though, she never lets us lose sight of the bruised humanity within. Jennifer has moved in with her mother, but after Patty’s creep boyfriend (Norbert Leo Butz) sexually assaults her (an event that Patty turns a blind eye to), she has little choice but to move back in with her father.
For a while, “Flag Day” becomes almost a distorted parody of a feel-good Hollywood father-daughter buddy movie. John keeps coming up with schemes and inventions (his latest: a jean stretcher!), but then, out of devotion to his daughter, he vows to leave the b.s. behind and get a straight job. He puts on a suit and tie and walks around with an important-looking briefcase, handing out his resume. Penn, going back to the ethos of films like “Straight Time” and “The King of Comedy,” loves playing unbeautiful losers like this. It’s part of his empathy, but he also flaunts the flamboyant theater of it — it’s almost like a rite of exorcism for him, as if Penn were playing the scurrilous men that he fears, on some level, he could have been. We think: Maybe John is getting his act together. But John is fooling us the same way he fools everyone. And once Jennifer has his number, she’s done. So, it appears, is he. Badly executed armed robbery, complete with Beatle wig, isn’t a scam you can talk your way out of.
“Flag Day” is Jennifer’s story, and in the last part of the movie she comes into her own, pulling herself together enough to study journalism. She winds up working for the Minneapolis alternative weekly City Pages, and she’s going great guns — until the day that she looks out through the paper’s glass doors and there, in the street, stands John. The way that shot is staged, it’s a brilliant moment of filmmaking. Penn now looks frighteningly lean, with a modified prison haircut, but he’s also got a new monied glow. And what Dylan Penn’s face shows us is the underlying tangle of emotion Jennifer is feeling: the love, the heartbreak, but also the sickening distress. The fact that her father has just shown up like a stalker is itself a red flag. She can now see right through him. Yet this scoundrel father, who she has systematically learned not to trust, is the only father she has. That’s the story “Flag Day” tells, and it’s the reason the movie hits such a universal nerve. We’ve already had a flash forward to what will happen to John. The wrenching pain of it is that he’s a counterfeit father who’s also the real deal.