Most parents will do anything in their power to help their children succeed in life. For most of us, that involves supporting them emotionally and financially, teaching them right from wrong, and, hopefully, getting them to a place where they can survive on their own. For someone like Oscar winner Sean Penn, that can mean being in the fortunate position to make a movie with and starring your kids, as he does with Flag Day.
The film centers on the highly dysfunctional Vogel family, led by John (Sean Penn), who has his hands in multiple criminal enterprises over the course of the film’s running time. His exploits take a toll on his one-time romantic partner, Patty (Kathryn Winnick), and son, Nick (played as a teenager/adult by Hopper Penn), but they especially affect Jennifer (played as a teenager/adult by Dylan Penn), who always tries to find a way to see the good in him.
Jennifer winds up being the main character, as she bounces back and forth between her two parents over the years, desperate for some kind of stability that seems like it will never come. No matter what, though, John and Jennifer always find a way back into each other’s lives, and Jennifer has to come to terms between the love she feels for him and what’s ultimately best for her own life.
The film, directed by Sean Penn, written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and based on the book Flim-Flam Man by the real-life Jennifer Vogel, is tough viewing for anyone who likes at least a little levity in their movies. The closest the story comes to a feel-good moment is when Jennifer and Nick run away to live with John when they’re both still in elementary school. But the fun moments they share with him and his then-girlfriend are illusory, both by the circumstances that led them to his door and the life he’s leading when they find him.
One of the reasons the film is called Flag Day is because John Vogel was born on that holiday and apparently reveled in the celebrations every year (side note: does anyone actually celebrate Flag Day other than putting out a flag?). But the connections are tenuous at best after that. Perhaps it’s an attempt to show that the story of the Vogels is just as American as the more idyllic families? Whatever the intention, it doesn’t come through strongly.
The film often looks like it’s meant to have a nostalgic feel. Much of the footage is grainy, and Penn sometimes inserts home video purportedly filmed by John. If that style was supposed to result in stronger emotions for the film’s odd family unit, it doesn’t work as intended. While Jennifer’s agony over not being loved like she should be and not knowing how to completely separate herself from her father is clear, none of the feelings translate over to viewers.
However, the real-life love between Sean and Dylan Penn is very evident. Sean showcases Dylan (and to a much lesser degree, Hopper) so well that it wouldn’t be surprising to see her pick up more starring roles in the near future. Dylan is not just a product of her father’s directing, though; her talent often elevates her scenes, something that can’t always be said of others. Sean also does a great job; few others can play charming and abhorrent in the same movie as well as he can.
Flag Day is not that memorable of a film, either for its story or its characters. But as a way for Sean Penn to get his kids notice in the film world, it works wonders, although it’s more than a tad ironic that he becomes a good parent by telling a story about an awful one.
Flag Day opens in theaters on August 20.