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Review: Flag Day

August 27, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Sean Penn’s latest film as a director, and the first that he stars in as well, Flag Day is based on journalist Jennifer Vogel’s 2005 memoir Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life.

The book, which has been adapted for the screen with mixed results by Penn and screenwriter Jez Butterworth, recounted her story of growing up with John Vogel as her father, a con man and bank robber who drifted in and out of her life. Sean Penn casts himself in the role of John Vogel and, in a creative choice that is either nepotism or inspired casting, casts his own daughter Dylan Penn in the role of Jennifer.

The story is told entirely from Jennifer’s perspective, and relies heavily on her voiceover narration. The film opens with her in a police station, learning that her father printed millions of dollars in counterfeit bills. We then flashback to 1975, where a younger Jennifer (played by newcomer Jadyn Rylee) is on the road with her father, clearly enamoured by this larger than life man who lets her take the wheel of the car at night.

From here, Flag Day follows Jennifer from childhood to adulthood as she goes back and forth between her mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick), who is struggling with addiction, and her father, who is unable to provide a steady home for her but promises a sense of freedom and adventure. The main arc of the film is about her coming to terms with the fact that her father is not the man she looked up to as a child.

There are some intriguing pieces here, but the problems with Flag Day lie in its construction. Penn and Butterworth decide to keep many of the more colourful and interesting parts of John Vogel’s life off-screen, opting instead to craft a heavily clichéd indie drama. Penn tries to go for a Malickian approach of flowing images set to voiceover (the film even has an early scene in a wheat field), but the actor-director fails to capture the spiritualism of Terrence Malick’s best work. The film relies too heavily on tearful, overwrought montages, and the narration can feel hokey.

Some of the individual parts here are good, including evocative sequences shot by cinematographer Daniel Moder showing Fourth of July festivities, that evoke a sort of faded Americana. Sean Penn does deliver a strong performance as a grifter trying to bluff his way through life, showing the right amount of vulnerability in key moments, and he has natural onscreen chemistry with his daughter. The film also boasts a fine soundtrack of indie rock songs by Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard and Cat Power, including the poignant track “My Father’s Daughter” sung by Vedder’s own daughter Olivia Vedder.

Penn can be a very good director, as we saw in his powerhouse 2007 film Into the Wild. But Flag Day leans too much into melodrama in its character moments, such as one histrionic scene where Patty confronts a teenaged Jennifer about her drug use, and the film has an almost cloying sentimentality at times that holds it back. The film ultimately feels like a collection of montages, some of which are admittedly effective, in search of a better overall movie.

Flag Day is now playing in select theatres in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. It will be expanding to more Canadian cities on September 3rd.

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