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+.