Movie Review: Sean Penn directs his kids in a tale of toxic parenting — “Flag Day

“Flag Day,” director and star Sean Penn’s painterly but somewhat perfunctory tale of toxic parenting, was intended as a star vehicle for his daughter Dylan Penn. And he makes sure it fills the bill, in that regard, a movie of striking landscapes and beautiful silhouettes, but whose “money shot,” first scene to last, is close-up after lingering closeup.

All Dylan has to do, playing the teen and then adult journalist Jennifer Vogel, child of a con artist and counterfeiter, is hold her own in scenes with one of the finest screen actors ever. And the model-turned-actress daughter of Robin Wright more or less does, giving us a flash of temper here, weeping despair there and a lot of stoic disappointment in between.

Josh Brolin, Dale Dickey and Eddie Marsan lend effortless support, with Penn’s son Hopper Penn playing the other child of lie-spinning, Chopin-listening Minnesota “entrepreneur” John Vogel, a guy who is in and out of his kids’ lives over the 17 years the story covers.

But Penn the elder has made a movie more concerned with grainy images captured in twilight than pace, more wrapped up in picture-postcard cinematography than a plot that surprises or dialogue that rings true.

“Flag Day” is framed within the real-life journalist-daughter’s meeting with a law enforcement official (Oscar winner Regina King), who fills her in on her father’s latest brush with the law.

The story-proper is told in flashback, with Jennifer (played by Jadyn Rylee as a tween) remembering her “reckless” and dishonest father as the family bounced around, ran up debts and ran out on those debts, sometimes before and occasionally after a beating when he hustled the wrong guy, often torching the house or business he couldn’t make the payments on as he fled.

He’d put Jennifer, his oldest, behind the wheel in his lap on long overnight drives, “because you’ve got to learn to drive if you want to see the world,” and he needed a little shuteye.

Seriously.

John runs out on wife Patty (Katheryn Winnick), tells his brother (Brolin, understated and stoic) “I’d do ANYthing for those kids.”

Prove it,” his younger brother growls.

Patty crawls into a bottle, and then into a marriage to a creep who takes his best shot at molesting Jennifer during her punked-out teens. And despite all of Patty’s warnings about who and what her father is, that’s her escape.

The child grows into young adulthood, hearing her father spin this or that attempt at “going straight,” debating him on their matching drug-abuse habits, struggling to reconcile her love for him with her desperation for a normal, supportive role-model parent.

Dickey does a short, earthy turn as John’s mom, calling her son “a bad penny…
born on Flag Day” who would “burn down the world if he thought it’d put him in a white mansion.” And Marsan has a cameo playing a polluter the adult Jennifer confronts in an interview.

What Penn was shooting for here is a far softer-edged “At Close Range,” a career-making coming-of-age picture about that moment when a child realizes they’ve been worshipping a false idol.

But “softer” in this case means the arc of the story is pre-determined and dramatically flat. The stakes seem lower, right up to the moment in the third act when they’re not.

Jennifer’s “finding herself” years are covered in a montage of hitchhiking hippy excesses. And there’s not much detail or color to her father’s myriad schemes (a “jeans stretching” device) to keep things interesting.

Their shared scenes have some meat to them, but the content around them is so thin that we’re relieved when John pulls a bank robbery and disappointed when it’s handled so flatly.

Penn the younger just turned 30, and is thus less convincing as a teen than as an adult. And the “model” in her (she’s done a little acting, here and there) might explain some of the grammatically clunky lines she spouts (Blown takes?) as Jennifer tries to get into journalism school, and then becomes a journalist, one lacking an alacrity with the language when asking questions, arguing with an editor or facing off with a polluter.

The problem with “Flag Day” isn’t that she doesn’t measure up to the material. It’s that a pretty promising story (the “Ford v. Ferrari” Butterworth brothers scripted it) rarely measures up to the damned fine cast her father rounded up for it. He’s made a film that may look as painterly as Penn’s best directing job, “Into the Wild,” but never measures up to it.

Rating: Some Drug Use, Violent Content, language (profanity)

Cast: Sean Penn, Dylan Penn, Regina King, Dale Dickey, Hopper Penn, Eddie Marsan, and Josh Brolin

Credits: Directed by Sean Penn, script by Jez Butterworth and John Henry Butterworth. An MGM release.

Running time: 1:49

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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