Review: ‘Flag Day,’ starring Dylan Penn and Sean Penn

August 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sean Penn and Dylan Penn in “Flag Day” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

“Flag Day”

Directed by Sean Penn

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Minnesota, the dramatic film “Flag Day” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman reflects on the troubled relationship that she’s had with her con-man father, who has been in and out of her life. 

Culture Audience: “Flag Day” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director/star Sean Penn, but this movie is an erratic mix of monotony and melodrama, adding up to disappointing filmmaking.

Dylan Penn in “Flag Day” (Photo courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc.)

“Flag Day” should’ve beeen titled “Daddy Issues in a Self-Indulgent Movie.” That should save people the trouble of wasting their time if they don’t want to see this rambling, uneven mess. Everything about this movie—from the acting to the screenwriting to the directing—could have been so much better, given the level of talent involved. Sadly, “Flag Day” is an example of what can happen when people capable of award-winning work just seem to be coasting off of those past glories instead of delivering a truly outstanding project.

Directed by Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn, “Flag Day” is the sixth feature film that he’s directed but the first in which he’s both the director and a star. “The Flag Day” screenplay, written by brothers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, is based on journalist Jennifer Vogel’s memoir “Flim-Flam Man.” In real life, Jennifer’s father John Vogel was a notorious con man who was responsible for counterfeiting millions of dollars.

In “Flag Day,” Jennifer (played by Dylan Penn, the real-life daughter of Sean Penn and his second ex-wife Robin Wright) is the narrator and is supposed to be the story’s main character. However, she’s overshadowed by her father John (played by Sean Penn), even when he isn’t on screen, because the filmmakers make the Jennifer character someone who’s constantly thinking about and reacting to whatever her father does. It very off-putting because it’s yet another movie where toxic masculinity is given more importance and more forgiveness than the woman at the center of the story while she’s supposed to be finding her own identity.

There’s a half-hearted attempt at a “female empowerment” message during the last five minutes of the film. But it smacks of insincerity because she only arrives at this breakthrough not through her own choice but because she’s been forced to do so under some very disturbing circumstances where she has no other option. And the way she finds out that she has no choice is one of the worst scenes in the movie.

“Flag Day” gets its title because John was born on Flag Day. It’s another sign that this movie wants to be more about John than about Jennifer. As Jennifer says in her voiceover narration, because John was born on Flag Day, he likes to believe that any Flag Day parades and celebrations are really for him. Get ready for more narcissism and delusions of grandeur, because John is the epitome of these obnoxious personality traits.

The movie shows Jennifer at various stages in her life, from childhood to adulthood, in chronological order. The exception is the opening scene, which takes place in a police station when Jennifer is an adult in her 20s. She’s meeting with someone named U.S. Marshal Blake (played by Regina King), who shows Jennifer some of the evidence that law enforcement has against John for his counterfeiting activities. According to U.S. Marshal Blake, John passed more than $50,000 in counterfeit U.S. bills and had printed about $2 million worth of more counterfeit bills. For his forgeries, John was facing a maximum of 75 years in prison.

U.S. Marshal Blake seems sympathetic to Jennifer and confides in her that her own father “poked so many holes in his arm” (in order words, he was a needle-using drug addict) “that it was like a rehearsal for the ultimate rejection.” U.S. Marshal Blake adds, “We get used to it, don’t we?” The movie circles back to this scene with U.S. Marshal Blake toward the end of the film, as viewers find out what happened to John after he was caught for his forgery.

But in between, the rest of the story is about how John held Jennifer as an emotional hostage for much of her life—even when she didn’t know it. Because the movie is supposed to be told from Jennifer’s perspective, her childhood memories of John tend to be rosier than what he deserved. There are obvious clues that things were not as wonderful as Jennifer remembers.

The movie’s flashback timeline begins in the early 1970s, when a 6-year-old Jennifer (played by Addison Tymec), who grew up in Minnesota, has memories of her parents being free spirits who liked to party and go on road trips. Jennifer remembers her father as the more fun-loving parent. John and his wife Patty Vogel (played by Katheryn Winnick) moved around a lot with Jennifer and her introverted brother Nick (played by Cole Flynn), who is two years younger than Jennifer. As Jennifer tells it, she began to think that if her life were a fairytale, her father would definitely be a prince.

In reality, John had trouble making an honest living. He jumped around from one “get rich quick” scheme to the next, always with the promise that the latest one would be the one to make their dreams come true. And he also got involved with shady people, often owing large sums of money. If John showed up at home looking like he was in a fight, chances are it was because of his debts.

The movie shows that as a child, Jennifer also witnessed John verbally and physically abuse Patty. But as many children in abusive homes tend to do, they block out the worst memories. Jennifer still considered her father as her hero. There’s a scene of reckless John teaching Jennifer at around 11 or 12 years old (played by Jadyn Rylee) how to drive, by having her sit on his lap to operate the car, even though she could barely reach the gas pedal and brake pedal. Tymec and Rylee are quite good in their roles as childhood Jennifer.

John’s con games and irresponsible lifestyle eventually took a toll on his marriage to Patty, who became an alcoholic. Patty left John around the time that Jennifer was 13 years old and Nick (played by Beckam Crawford) was about 11 years old. The couple eventually divorced. And because of Patty’s alcoholism, there’s a brief period of time when Jennifer and Nick (played by Beckam Crawford) live with John and his girlfriend Debbie (played by Bailey Noble), who treats the kids well. The children get a first-hand look at John’s outlaw lifestyle.

Because Jennifer idolizes her father, she blames Patty for the couple’s divorce. When Patty tries to warn Jennifer about how much John can be hurtful, Jennifer always dismisses these warnings. More than once, Patty tells Jennifer that she “knows things” about John that she can’t tell Jennifer. Those secrets are never revealed in the movie, but they don’t really have to be disclosed because enough is shown about John to prove what a lousy person he is.

The only other Vogel family members who are shown in the movie are John’s brother Beck (played by Josh Brolin) and their mother Margaret (played by Dale Dickey). Beck is sympathetic to Patty and helps her and the kids get settled into a new place when she decides to leave John. Beck is an intermittent presence in their lives. and he candidly tells Patty how sorry he is that John couldn’t be a better husband and father.

Margaret is a crabby racist who has one scene in the movie, where she complains that John (who is clearly her favorite child) had a great business years ago until it was burned down. Margaret says that she and John think jealous black people were the ones who caused the fire, even though there’s no proof of who committed the arson. Considering John’s history as a con man and his constant money problems, it’s easy to speculate that John was the one who committed the arson for the insurance money.

The movie than fast-forwards to 1981. Jennifer is now a rebellious, drug-abusing teenager in high school. Her natural blonde hair is dyed black and styled to look like she’s a Joan Jett wannabe. (It’s an obvious wig though. This movie needed a better hairstyling team.) Jennifer and Nick live with Patty and her boyfriend Doc (played by Norbert Leo Butz), who tries to come across as a respectable, upstanding person. In reality, Doc is a drunk and a sleazeball, who tries to sexually assault Jennifer one night in her bedroom while Patty is asleep.

Jennifer screams and manages to fight him off. The commotion is loud enough to wake up Patty, who goes in the room to find out what all the noise is about. Patty sees how distraught Jennifer is and sees that Doc is on the floor in his underwear. It’s easy to figure out what happened, even though Jennifer is too shocked and/or ashamed to say it out loud. Patty takes Doc’s side and makes the excuse that he was drunk and probably thought he was in the wrong bedroom.

Jennifer’s relationship with her mother is never really the same after that. They have some very angry arguments, where Jennifer expresses outrage that her mother failed to protect her from Doc, and it isn’t long before Jennifer runs away from home. Jennifer barely says goodbye to Nick (played by Hopper Jack Penn, Dylan Penn’s real-life brother), who just kind of fades into the background for the rest of the movie. After Jennifer experiences the harshness of living on the streets (the movie doesn’t say for how long), Jennifer decides to show up unannounced at her father John’s place, where he lives alone, and she asks if she can stay with him.

John is reluctant at first, but he eventually agrees. Jennifer also tries to get him to turn his life around. John actually gets a straight-laced sales job in an office. But viewers can easily predict that John, who’s spent most of his adult life as a con man, is eventually going back to his criminal ways. The movie telegraphs it in the opening scene, where Jennifer has the meeting with U.S Marshal Blake about John’s counterfeiting.

After a while, it becomes tiresome to see the same patterns over and over again: Jennifer loves her father, but she can’t really trust him because he’s a pathological liar. They are in and out of each other’s lives. She struggles with deciding whether to give him yet another chance or to completely cut herself off from him.

But here’s the biggest problem with how Jennifer’s story is told in this movie: Even when Jennifer reaches adulthood, John is still portrayed as her unhealthy focus in life. Not once do viewers see if Jennifer had any significant friendships or fell in love—in other words, the movie makes it look like she never established any deep emotional connections or meaningful relationships with anyone besides her father. Jennifer and her brother Nick were close as children, but after she ran away from home, it seems like they were never that close again.

There are montages of Jennifer being a drifter and partying with various people whose names and personalities are never shown in the movie. Eventually, Jennifer decides to get her life together, and she enrolls in the University of Minnesota in 1985. But even that scene looks rushed and phony, because she has a meeting with an admissions officer named Dr. Halstead (played by Nigel Fisher), who scolds her for lying on her application about being a high school dropout. At first Jennifer denies it, but then she admits she lied and that she never graduated from high school.

Dr. Halstead takes pity on her and says that if she lied about something like that, then it must mean that she really wants a college education. And just like that, he says that Jennifer can enroll in the university. In reality, university admissions are much more complicated and have more people involved in making the decisions than what’s portrayed in this movie. And telling a big lie on a college application would be automatic grounds for disqualification, unless someone can squeak by because of exceptional intelligence or because the applicant’s family is rich. Jennifer doesn’t fit either description.

“Flag Day” doesn’t know if it wants to be a gritty drama or a hokey soap opera. Jennifer says corny lines in her narration, such as when she makes this comment about her rogue father: “He left a trail of broken glass and broken hearts.” What is this? A Hallmark Channel movie? No, because there’s cursing, drug use and violence.

Sean Penn’s direction tends to be overwrought with close-ups of Dylan Penn’s face, as if Jennifer is a tragic ingenue heroine who has to bear the burdens of her father’s sins. She does an adequate job in her role overall, except in the melodramatic scenes which just look like over-acting. Sean Penn tries to depict John as a lovably messed-up outlaw. But it’s all so unconvincing and too contrived, in order to gloss over the reality of John being an abuser and a racist. Sean Penn does a lot of annoying mugging for the camera in this movie.

While the filmmakers clearly want viewers to feel sympathy for Jennifer, nowhere is it adequately addressed how she did some emotional damage of her own too, when she abandoned her younger brother Nick. The movie doesn’t care to explore how Nick was affected by all of his family trauma. And because “Flag Day” never shows Jennifer having any real friends or lovers, the movie leaves a big question mark about how her dysfunctional childhood affected her personal relationships as an adult.

There’s something very wrong with a movie that’s supposed to be about a young woman’s journey to form her own identity, and yet viewers learn more about who her father hangs out with and dates than they learn about her personal life. It’s a sloppily told story where the filmmakers use a woman’s pain as a “bait and switch” gimmick, when the movie is really a showcase about a man behaving badly.

Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures released “Flag Day” in select U.S. cinemas on August 20, 2021.