As an actor, the talent of Sean Penn has rarely been called into question yet behind the camera, his work has been known to divide audiences. His previous effort was infamously met with a chorus of boos at Cannes Film Festival five years ago, but he’s back in the director’s chair once again for family drama Flag Day. Based on the memoir Flim-Flam Man: A True Family History by author and journalist Jennifer Vogel, it tells the true story of troubled con artist John Vogel (Sean Penn) and how his crimes impacted upon his relationship with his daughter (Dylan Penn), who is working through issues of her own.
In crafting the tone of this Americana-infused tale, Penn borrows from the Terrence Malick school of haze as he establishes a sun-scorched sheen for the 70s set sequences. A grainy dream-like quality is effectively applied as the narrative shifts focus between Jennifer’s modern-day existence and flashbacks to her often misspent youth. This fragmented style almost reflects the instability in her upbringing with an alcoholic mother, but despite his fleeting presence in her life, one constant that remains is her unwavering love and support towards her deadbeat dad. Some of the soundtrack choices don’t always work as its melodramatic sentimentality edges towards pretension, but the acting is strong enough to ease the film over any bumps in the road.
For the first time in his filmmaking career, Penn takes up one of the leading roles as well as directing, and masterfully captures the tragedy of John Vogel; a desperately free-wheeling rogue who attempts to charm his way out of every unfortunate situation he finds himself in. For this particular piece, it makes complete sense for him to act as well, as his real-life daughter portrays his daughter in the film. Carrying the torch from her parents, Dylan Penn delivers a ferocious leading turn. Their candid connection shines through in their stirring performances and the film is at its strongest in the scenes they share. Stellar support comes from the likes of Katheryn Winnick, Josh Brolin, and Eddie Marsan, each appearing in brief but memorable moments that provide depth to Jennifer’s character.
Proving that he can be just as impactful as a director as he is an on-screen presence, Flag Day is a compelling father-daughter drama from Sean Penn. Leaning into his own experience, he injects genuine emotion into this rugged adaptation’s pivotal relationship.