By Lynn Venhaus
The title “Flag Day” is meant to be a metaphor about the American Dream. Who better to embody the flip side of that, with his usual white-hot intensity, than Sean Penn?

The two-time Oscar winner starred and directed this gut-wrenching character study and gets inside the head of a deeply flawed man, John Vogel, who scammed his way through adulthood. Vogel believed life was a grand adventure but was always seeking easy street — and felt he was owed la dolce vita.

Based on Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir, “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life,” a complicated father-daughter dynamic takes place from 1975 to 1992, mostly in Minnesota, as she learns dad is more of a train wreck than the larger-than-life figure she thought.

This father of two opted for reckless decisions instead of responsibility, which affected his wife, son and daughter.

The realities of his desperation slowly crept into young Jennifer’s psyche, whose mournful voice is heard over the narration. This is her story, of how she salvaged a broken life and became ‘someone who mattered,” pursuing a career as a journalist.

In a masterful debut, Dylan Penn embodies Jennifer with a yearning, an aching sense of loss, and a moral center. She finds the darkness inside the character as well as the light. Dylan, the 30-year-old daughter of Sean and former wife Robin Wright, is a striking, soulful beauty reminiscent of her mother.

The story, which we know won’t end well, is told in flashback. Screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, who wrote “Fair Game” starring Penn and 2019’s smash hit “Ford vs. Ferrari,” have created an emotional connection that some viewers will relate to – because not everyone grew up in a “Leave It to Beaver” sitcom family household.

Golden-hued memories of idyllic summers at one of Minnesota’s lakes contrast family turmoil. After dad left a trail of unpaid bills and broken promises, he split. But mom, Patty (Katheryn Wittock) descended into a bottle, neglecting the kids.

Those who did not have a safe, secure childhood can relate, and identify with Jennifer finding her voice as she struggles to survive the past, but also of that inescapable bond between parent and child.

Jennifer and her brother Nick see-saw between parents and when teenagers, emerge as the brother-and-sister Penns – Dylan is a punk-goth teen by now. Nick is played by Dylan’s younger brother, Hopper Jack Penn.

In the flashbacks, sweet performances are delivered by Addison Tymec, at 6, and Jadyn Rylee, from 11 to 13, as young Jennifer, and Beckam Crawford as young Nick, age 9-11.

In his sixth directorial effort – and first one featuring him acting, Penn covers a lot of ground. While he is especially good in the interactions with his daughter, he also lapses into proud dad behind the director’s chair, perhaps a little too indulgent with camera time on Dylan. She is, though, destined for stardom.

This might not be in the same league as his best work, “Into the Wild” in 2007, but Penn is a smart storyteller.

One of the film’s drawbacks is the brief turns by accomplished actors. Josh Brolin is part of two scenes as Vogel’s brother Beck (he and Penn worked together on “Milk”) and you want more of him. Regina King is a federal agent and St. Louis’ own, two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, plays against type as mom’s creepy boyfriend who attempts to assault Jennifer.

When mom turns a blind eye, Jennifer takes off to live with dad, and while she tries to steer him to a normal routine, that ends with more lies, schemes and a prison sentence for armed robbery. He can no longer fool his daughter.

Jennifer’s redemption and John’s lack of is how the film crawls to its inevitable conclusion, as Vogel is targeted by U.S. Marshals after counterfeiting $22 million. He was the most notorious counterfeiter in U.S. history and the subject of an “Unsolved Mysteries” in May 1995.

Melancholy tinges nearly the entire production, but there are moments of love and joy, and some glimmers of hope.

Cinematographer Danny Moder excels at capturing the youthful nostalgia and the patriotic pageantry of American holidays celebrated by many municipalities across the land.

The music is a high point, from composer Joseph Vitarelli and featuring acoustic songs written by Cat Powers, Glen Hansard (“Once”) and Eddie Vedder.

But the main takeaway is a haunting father-daughter story made more poignant by the talent and skills of a real father and daughter.

“Flag Day” is a 2021 true crime drama directed by Sean Penn and starring Dylan Penn, Sean Penn, Katherine Wittock, Hopper Jack Penn, Regina King, Josh Brolin, Bailey Noble, Norbert Leo Butz and Eddie Marsan. Rated R for language, some drug use and violent content, with a run time of 1 hour, 49 minutes. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the film opens in theaters on Aug. 27. Lynn’s Grade: B+.

By Lynn Venhaus
A play-based drama imagines conversations between four black icons during a crucial time in the civil rights fight.

Playwright Kemp Powers adapted his 2013 stage play, “One Night in Miami,” which set their fictional meeting on Feb. 25, 1964, after Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) emerged as the new heavyweight boxing champion by defeating Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Joining him afterwards at the Hampton House Motel in the African American Overtown neighborhood is activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and legendary NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).

These influential black men discuss their responsibility and roles in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

On the cusp of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, four famous black men feel pressured as symbols, trying to determine how to support equality and empower others through their celebrity.

The discussions are thought-provoking throughout, even though the film can’t quite shake its theatrical roots. But it’s the performances that galvanize “One Night in Miami.” One of the finest ensembles of the year features four young talents establishing their value, and each is riveting.

Kingsley Ben-Adir is fire and brimstone as Malcolm X, whose heated exchanges with Cooke do lead to a new direction for the singer, as shown later in “A Change Is Gonna Come” performed on “The Tonight Show.”

As the confident Malcolm X, Ben-Adir, however, expresses doubt and grapples with loyalty to the Nation of Islam.

Eli Goree, a veteran of TV’s “Ballers” and “Riverdale,” nails the glibness and distinct cadence of Clay, who is mulling over his decision to become Muhammad Ali.

Leslie Odom Jr., Tony winner as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” is electric as soul music pioneer Cooke, smoothly delivering several hits. A flashback to him salvaging a live show with an a capella “Chain Gang” is one of the film’s highlights.

Aldis Hodge, long a secret weapon in films, imbues his Brown with more anger and depth as he debates a future beyond football. In one of the film’s most significant scenes, he is humiliated by a wealthy bigot (Beau Bridges) during the Jim Crow era.

Oscar-winning actress Regina King, making her directorial debut, just gives her actors room to breathe. And the dialogue crackles, resonating beyond that night and emphasizing the impact these men had in their lives. 

By the end of the year, Malcolm X was assassinated and Cooke was killed in a sketchy incident – and the athletes became two of the greatest there ever was.

This evening may have taken place nearly 57 years ago but it feels timely. It’s definitely a conversation-starter for any age.

“One Night in Miami” is a drama based on Kemp Powers’ play, directed by Regina King and starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree. Rated R for language throughout, the movie’s run-time is 1 hr. 54 min. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Now playing in theatres and on Amazon Prime Jan. 15