Sean Penn directs “Flag Day” in the key of anguish.
That’s hardly surprising as anguish courses strongly through almost all of the volatile filmmaker’s five previous directorial outings beginning with 1991’s “The Indian Runner” up to 2007’s “Into the Wild.” All those are about men caught in extreme situations that jolt them to their emotional core.
With “Flag Day,” he breaks with precedent by putting the spotlight on a woman. Her life is thrust into turmoil by the actions of an incorrigibly irresponsible man. The man is her father.
The father is played by Penn, the first time he has acted in a movie he’s directed. The woman is played by his daughter, Dylan Penn, a model turned actor in her most significant role to date. Adding to the all-in-the-family aspect is the fact that her character’s brother is played by her real-life brother and Penn’s son, Hopper Jack Penn.
A further dimension of “Flag Day’s” family focus: all three Penns are playing members of the same family. Sean Penn’s character, John Vogel, is the father of Jennifer and Nick Vogel, the characters played by the Penn siblings. And they’re all people who actually exist, or in the case of John, existed.
The story, which jumps back and forth between the ‘70s and the ‘90s, is adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s 2005 memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life.” If it had a subtitle it would be “You Only Hurt the One You Love.”
Sean Penn’s John Vogel, a man born on Flag Day, is a loving dad who periodically abandons his family. He projects sincerity and is an inveterate liar. He’s a perpetual optimist, animated by grand dreams of business success, who is a total failure at every business he tries. He turns to crime and fails at that as well, robbing a bank on impulse and being nabbed by the police almost immediately. He winds up in prison.
Curiously, the one area where he briefly excelled, printing counterfeit bills of extraordinarily high quality, is barely alluded to.
It’s a meaty, complicated part, and Penn inhabits all its corners with consummate skill. He makes this pathetic, contradictory man oddly compelling.
Daughter Jennifer loves her father to distraction. He sets a terrible example and disappoints her deeply and repeatedly. The anguish comes in waves. Her love for him turns her into his emotional hostage and ruins her life.
In his absence, Jennifer and her mother (played by Katheryn Winnick) fall into shrieking quarrels. The mother assails her husband as the liar that he is while Jennifer attacks her mother’s failings, including the mother’s inability to defend her child from the abusive advances of the mother’s boyfriend.
Misery sends Jennifer out of the home, and she winds up living homeless in the street. Later, slowly, she pulls herself together and pursues a dream of becoming a journalist by going to college to study in the field.
“Flag Day” relies on extensive use of voiceover by Dylan Penn to explain her character’s inner thoughts while the camera repeatedly views her contemplative self in moody close-ups.
Clearly, the picture is a labor of love by the Penns, but too often it just feels labored. There’s a sense of everyone trying too hard. There are too many interludes where Jennifer screams at her mom or her dad, imploring him to “tell me the truth!” And Sean Penn’s periodic use of gauzy, sun-dappled flashbacks to Jennifer’s childhood and her happier days with her dad border on the cloying.
Misery haunts “Flag Day” from beginning to end.