Sean Penn has certainly come a long way since Spicoli ordered a pizza in the middle of History class in Amy Heckerling's opus Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Penn has won acting awards, played some iconic roles alongside the best in the business, and has even sat in the director's chair several times, earning him numerous awards in the achievement of directing. But this new film Flag Day marks the first time Penn has directed himself as the star of the show alongside his two kids Dylan Penn and in a much smaller role Hopper Penn. The result is a turbulent yet poetic story about a hugely dysfunctional family over several decades where the father tries desperately to achieve that coveted American Dream but lets everyone down on a consistent basis. Flag Day is as sweet as it is tragic. Worth A Look.
Flag Day is based on Jennifer Vogel's 2005 memoir Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father's Counterfeit Life, which has Dylan Penn playing Jennifer and Sean Penn playing the role of John - her father. As the film starts out in 1992, a law enforcement officer played by Regina King tells Jennifer that her father had been wanted in a months-long manhunt for counterfeiting millions of dollars and would be sent to prison for at least twenty-five years. From here, the film flashes back for the remainder of the story with Jennifer's narration in the '70s and '80s as she gives a glimpse of what her life was like growing up.
She states that her father was born on Flag Day and that in his mind, he believed everyone and the country itself owed him a celebration. John seems like a great father and he is very much so until he isn't. The kids love him and he's a ton of fun to be with, but he's always involved in get-rich-quick schemes and never seems to keep his head above water, owing money to anyone he borrows from. This tears apart his marriage with his wife Patty and leaves her and the kids to start over. This sends Patty into an alcoholic stupor forcing her young kids to leave her and live with dear old dad again, who is now living with another young woman. Things seem to be good, but again, he is forced to go on the run from creditors and bad business deals.
This has Jennifer and her brother Nick headed back to their mother who has seemed to get her life back together. Now Jennifer is in high school and her mother has found a new husband, but when he sexually assaults the teenage Jennifer and her mother does nothing about it, she is forced to leave again, seeking out her father one last time. When the two find each other, the father-daughter relationship has picked up right where it left off, but in this family, the father will always let everyone down, because John just can't help himself getting into trouble.
As every family member grows into a respectable and decent human being over the course of these years, John. is the only one who hasn't changed. Patty has cleaned herself up, Nick is a strapping young man, and Jennifer buckled down and found her way to the American Dream. But there is something with John that makes him fantastic and remarkable in his own right. He's downright likable, witty, fun, and a good man deep down. He loves his kids, but he fails miserably in all aspects of life, which puts him in prison and leads to his climactic ending for most of his life. It's a sweet and tragic tale of family, love, and knowing when to let go.
With Penn in the director's seat, it's easy to see how Terrence Malick had a big impression on him from their time on Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line as a lot of his vision for the film are images of rural America or those little tender moments of growing up in this odd and violent coming-of-age film. The way Penn weaves the years together is also poetic as Jennifer narrates the story overhead, just like in a Malick film. It's just too bad that the adapted script from the Butterworth siblings (Birthday Girl, Edge Of Tomorrow, Ford v Ferrari, Cruella) is a bit cliche and ripe with a similar pattern seen in many relationship films. This pattern consists of two characters getting along, having a major outburst, then rinse and repeat. There's no real tender, quiet moments between the characters here that would cause them to grow and learn in an organic way. That being said, the performances are great from Dylan and her father Sean. They sell their emotions well, but it would have been great to see it all done in a more natural order.
Flag Day has a great cast that is extremely underused, including Regina King, Josh Brolin, Dale Dickey, and Eddie Marsan. Combined, they all have about two or three minutes of screen time. Of course, they're great, but the spotlight is on Dylan and Sean and they do keep this film running. The music of the film always adds to the emotional tone and rustic America perfectly here, but how Penn's former film Into The Wild conveyed this excellent transformative journey in a perfect way, Flag Day does so but with an on-the-nose approach. Worth A Look!