Review: Earnest family drama 'Flag Day' not worth celebrating

Sean Penn directs and stars in story of a troubled family man alongside his real life daughter, Dylan Penn.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

In "Flag Day," Sean Penn plays a liar-thief-scammer who is also a delusional dreamer, and it's those dreams that keep buying him a little bit more time on the clock. He's a dead-end loser, and he knows it deep down, but maybe if this next thing works out he can fix everything and finally get that fresh start that he so desperately needs but which keeps alluding him, and, let's be honest, always will.

Sean Penn and Dylan Penn in "Flag Day."

Penn, who also directs, plays this broken soul with a flash of faded charisma that typifies "Flag Day" itself. This well intentioned drama is about connection and familial bonds, and second chances that become seventh chances as the hopes of redemption gently fade. But while its heart is in the right place, its execution is askew, and several loose ends keep it from coming together into a complete tapestry. 

Penn plays John Vogel and his real life daughter, Dylan Penn, plays his daughter, Jennifer. (Penn's son Hopper plays Vogel's son, Nick.) The Penns are obviously working out some real life issues here, and more power to them. But while their on-screen therapy session doesn't result in the emotional fireworks Penn intended, it's not a total flame out, either.

The film unfolds from the mid-'70s to the early '90s, and Penn — working from a script based on Jennifer Vogel's memoir "Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father's Counterfeit Life" — flashes forward and back in time using a series of grainy film stocks and shots of vintage Americana.  

John means well but is completely irresponsible; he teaches Jennifer to drive by placing her on his lap while they're driving on a long stretch of road at night, tells her to watch out for the curve coming up in about an hour, then nods off. When his latest scheme doesn't play out, he leaves his kids alone with their alcoholic mother, Patty (Katheryn Winnick). By her teenage years, Jennifer is a drug-abusing goth, and when her mom's boyfriend climbs into bed with her at night — mom, not ready to accept the truth herself, turns a blind eye to the sexual assault — Jennifer runs away and goes off to live with her father.

For awhile, "Flag Day" — named for the holiday on which John was born — turns into a two-way dance between father and daughter, played by father and daughter, as they figure out how to live with one another. Dad swallows his pride and picks up an honest-to-goodness day job to provide some much needed stability for the pair, but it's only a matter of time before things are blown up again, and "Flag Day" is flagged by the repetitive nature of the narrative. 

Dylan Penn, in her first major role, is asked to do too much here; especially in her wayward teenage years — the actress is 30 — she is too together to come off as lost and troubled. (In looks alone, Hopper Penn is even less convincing as a teen.)

Josh Brolin, Regina King and Eddie Marsan show up in brief, barely there roles — Brolin's is the most distracting and undercooked of the bunch — and for its own dramatic purposes the film mischaracterizes Flag Day as a national day of celebration rather than a lower tier holiday. (I had to look up when it's even held; it's in mid-June.) 

There is a wily charm to Sean Penn's performance, in which he goes through about 5,000 cigarettes (as well as a handful of godawful haircuts). But like Penn's character, "Flag Day" never quite pulls through; as much as you want to believe in it, it winds up a disappointment. 

'Flag Day'

GRADE: C

Rated R: for language, some drug use and violent content

Running time: 108 minutes

In theaters