Flag Day star Dylan Penn has acting in her genes. The daughter of actors Sean Penn and Robin Wright, Penn captivates the screen with natural magnetism. She gives an outstanding breakthrough performance playing journalist Jennifer Vogel in a heartfelt father-daughter portrait. Although Penn acts under her father’s direction, any reference to her lineage serves as mere context. Flag Day introduces her as a skilled performer in her own right. Her natural and down-to-earth performance totally upstages her two-time Oscar winning father.
The complicated relationship between fathers and daughters fuels Flag Day as Vogel struggles to break from her dad’s shadow. John Vogel (Sean Penn) is dead when the film begins. Jennifer receives this news from a U.S. Marshal (Regina King, in a throwaway role) and learns that her dad undertook a massive counterfeiting operation. As Flag Day flashes back to Vogel’s childhood, her story is one of proving herself authentic amid a sea of forgeries. The product of two broken parents, Jennifer has a hard life. She witnesses alcoholism daily, and doesn’t receive guidance in terms of what it means to be a responsible person. Her parents shuttle Jennifer and her brother, Nick, back and forth as they struggle with various addictions. The kids cope best they can, but even from an early age, Jennifer’s curiosity seeks the truth.
“All he wants to do is direct”
As a director, Penn makes an admirable rebound after 2016’s much-maligned The Last Face. Flag Day is an earnest all-American tale that uses the natural rapport of its stars to convey universal family dynamics. Warmly golden cinematography and a rousing soundtrack help butter the audience for the emotional peaks that the Penns hit along the way. However, one can sense that Penn is trying to recapture the verité-style essence of Into the Wild that works better in the wilderness than in the gritty streets of middle America. Tonal shifts and time jumps afford much time to younger actors and fleeting montages fuelled by Boomer hits. The meat of the film lives in the performances and one wishes Penn were less eager to prove himself a filmmaker. I’m still of the belief that great actors can bring a level of authorship to their movies.
The strength of Sean Penn’s performance, however, is better than his work as a director, admirable as it is. Several credits in, Penn’s still only a decent-to-good director on his best work behind the camera, but he’s consistently excellent when he steps in front. Flag Day carries the burden of all he really wants to do is direct baggage. The film nevertheless benefits from Penn playing both roles for the chemistry he shares with Dylan.
One might be tempted to call Flag Day’s casting pure nepotism—Penn’s son, Hopper, also appears in a small role—but it’s actually the shrewdest creative stroke of Penn’s direction. Jennifer grows to become an angry rebel and the film evolves as a push-pull relationship between parent and child. Jennifer just doesn’t have the rapport with her mother that she does with her father, even though both households are palpably toxic. The Penns authentically evoke the love that endures between parents and their children no matter how hard times become. This brings a cutting level of hurt to Flag Day, too, as Jennifer’s growth comes by keeping her distance from her father.
Sean Penn plays the fool gamely and pulls a bag of tricks that one could easily see any dear-old-dad playing on his daughter. In some scene, for example, the younger Jennifer witnesses her dad scurry into the house with a bloody face. He blames a careless trip even though she saw the cadre of biker thugs on the porch moments before. In another, she catches John fibbing on the telephone, putting on a charade to convince her of a selfless act of kindness. The phone, see, isn’t even connected. When Jennifer wags the chord in the air, John humorously wraps up the call. He’s a charlatan, but also a good father at heart as even his biggest blunders are absent of malice.
2021’s Breakthrough Star
There is, also, something very effective in seeing Sean Penn succeed where John Vogel does not. No matter how hard John tries to be provide for Jennifer, he can never put himself second. Even his violent suicide, captured by news cameras following a high-speed pursuit, leaves Jennifer to makes sense of his crimes on her own. There’s no closure until she grows as a writer and corrects the narrative in her own book, acknowledging both the love and pain. Penn, however, arguably ends Flag Day with a selfless act. The actor/director/father relinquishes the spotlight to Dylan.
The emphasis during John’s death—usually an actor’s big moment—is on Jennifer’s reaction. Watching the footage in a diner, Jennifer is floored, shocked, and terrified. Dylan brings the years of weight on Jennifer’s shoulders to the surface. In a silent feat of acting, Dylan conveys how all the pain John caused is eclipsed by the sudden aching loss. It’s as good a scene as either of her parents has ever done. Raise a flag to the breakthrough performance of the year.