Combustible Celluloid
With: Dylan Penn, Sean Penn, Katheryn Winnick, Josh Brolin, Regina King, James Russo, Dale Dickey, Eddie Marsan, Hopper Penn
Written by: Jez Butterworth, based on a story by Jennifer Vogel
Directed by: Sean Penn
MPAA Rating: R for language, some drug use and violent content
Running Time: 107
Date: 08/20/2021

Flag Day (2021)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Bland Dad

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It has some lovely moments, but Sean Penn's drama ultimately falls apart with its woozy, shaky camerawork, mournful soundtrack, and draggy rhythms, not to mention what feels like a tad too much ego.

It begins in 1992. Jennifer Vogel (Dylan Penn) learns that her father, John (Sean Penn), is in prison for counterfeiting. She flashes back to her life with him, worshipping him and admiring his free spirit. When it becomes clear that Jennifer's mother (Katheryn Winnick) has a drinking problem, she and her brother Nick escape to spend a wonderful summer with her father, his financial problems still in the background.

Over the years, they drift in and out of each other's lives. John goes to prison for robbery, and Jennifer becomes homeless for a while, before pulling her life together and fighting her way into journalism school. She becomes a reporter, just as her father is out of prison and trying to go straight again. But can he ignore his fiery impulses forever?

While Flag Day is based on a true story, Penn's casting of himself and his daughter Dylan in a story about a daughter that worships her father creates a kind of shadow over things, and it's difficult to forget who we're watching and become wrapped up in the story. Both actors are excellent, and they manage to save a few of their scenes — some of the smaller moments recall Penn's excellent early work as director (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, and The Pledge) — but the movie's overall tone and pace are a trial.

Penn appears to have been inspired by Terrence Malick, whose masterpiece The Tree of Life he acted in, so he tries some of the same drifting, meditative movements, accompanied by free-flowing narration. But Penn's shaky, frequently aimless camerawork misses Malick's sublime visuals by a mile.

Set over the course of many years, the movie can't seem to find a sense of pace, and things seem to crawl along for great stretches, and a great many montages. And the too-frequent dirge-like songs on the soundtrack serve to pull the mood down even further. Weirdest of all is the final takeaway from Flag Day. It celebrates Jennifer Vogel's self-made success, but it also seems to celebrate John's reckless life, admiring him for burning out rather than fading away.

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