Lazily written and mostly uninspired, Sean Penn’s Flag Day is an overly dramatic, sometimes thoughtful addition to the actor’s directorial repertoire. Though the filmmaker does substantial work in front of the camera, the lead performance of Dylan Penn — the director’s daughter — and the general composition of the film prove too thin for the weighty story, resulting in a sly melodrama that contends to be deeper than what it is.
Based on the novel Film-Flam Man by Jennifer Vogel, Flag Day charts Vogel’s (Dylan Penn as the adult character; Jadyn Rylee and Addison Tymec as younger versions) on-again, off-again relationship with her father John (Sean Penn) over three decades from the 1970s to the early 1990s. As Jennifer grows, her relationship with John becomes increasingly strained as her con-man father keeps breaking the law, obsessively creating entrepreneurial schemes such as a print and copy shop designed to print counterfeit bills. Given John’s troublesome lifestyle, Jennifer’s mother, Patty (Katheryn Winnick), an alcoholic until Jennifer attends college, keeps custody of her daughter until Jennifer seeks out her wayward father while in high school. Due to John’s habit of lying and struggles in maintaining an acceptable job, Jennifer grows frustrated, leading the duo to experience much painful heartbreak.
Flag Day excitingly marries an Oliver Stone-sque narration — which places a young adult recounting a life of lawlessness and redemption as the mouthpiece of the film à la Savages — with a John Cassavetes-like visual style, where grainy, extreme close-ups of actors’ faces populate the screen in suffocating fashion. Visually, the film is stunning with cinematographer Daniel Moder’s 8mm and 16mm images sporting grains that richly effuse the spirit of pointillism with an attentiveness to the minute variations of a film — not digital — picture.
Though Dylan Penn offers a sufficient narration, her acting in pivotal moments is, at best, slipshod and at worst, painfully amateurish. In a crucial scene when John is thrown in jail despite Jennifer’s best efforts to keep him gainfully employed, the father-daughter fight sees Sean Penn playing a desperate man stuck between his addiction to risk and love for a stable life with his daughter. Though full of shock and anger, Dylan Penn’s acting feels wooden, and the script doesn’t help, consigning her hollow lines.
Though Flag Day has an abundance of scenes with such heightened tension, its consistent reliance on the individual moments of Jennifer’s life rather than the build-up to such moments results in a lack of gravitas. This preference of focusing on disparate moments over an organically unfolding plot is felt in how the film jumps several years, places and eras, failing to settle on a period and culture, making it harder to care for the development of the story’s world.
Perhaps the film’s point, given its title, is not on the journey between essential days, but the days themselves, but even that proves to be an ill-fated strategy. John’s annual day of solace is his birthday, Flag Day, a commemoration of the American flag. Such a coincidence may frame John’s deceptive entrepreneurship as a deconstruction of the American dream, but Penn’s film is uninterested in such critiques. The Flag Day motif, minus it being associated with a nostalgic memory for John and Jennifer, remains underdeveloped. The exploration of the contrast between Jennifer’s honest work as a journalist driven in the pursuit of truth and John’s duplicitous work is mostly absent, with the latter’s schemes being simplistically framed as non-work and, therefore, a kind of weakness and not as a kind of work.
Flag Day refuses to ponder challenging ideas but still wants its viewers to be moved. The film is more interested in captivating viewers with a half-assed melodrama that, though it has a sincere heart, does not earn its sweeping moments of high emotion without a keen engagement with the messy and particular details of its story, characters and ideas.
Mo Muzammal is a freelance film critic based in Southern California. His interests include Pakistani Cinema, Parallel Cinema and film theory.