Features Live Action Movies

Flag Day

Director – Sean Penn – 2021 – US – Cert. 15 – 109m


A woman struggles to come to terms with her father who is a criminal and a pathological liar – out in cinemas on Friday, January 28th

This at once follows a linear narrative trajectory and doesn’t. On the one level, Jennifer grows into a woman, argues with her parents (with good reason) and attempts to find herself and make her way in the world. On the other level, images and sequences move effortlessly between Jennifer aged six (Addison Tymec), Jennifer as a young teenager (Jadyn Rylee) and the adult Jennifer (Dylan Penn). Sometimes it feels like the adult Jennifer having a flashback, sometimes it seems like we’re one of her younger selves, all very vivid and real. Sometimes it’s memory, sometimes it’s experience.

It’s based on the real life memoir of Jennifer Vogel, who apparently wrote the book trying to sort out her feelings about her unorthodox upbringing.

It starts and (more or less) ends with a line of cop cars pursuing suspect John Vogel (Sean Penn) wanted for counterfeiting. As the images roll over us, there’s a lot of adult Jennifer voice over in the first ten or so minutes (and elsewhere at odd moments in the film). One key sequence has him driving along the open road at night and seeing if either of the kids are awake. Jennifer (11) responds, so he sits he on his lap, puts her hands on the wheel and has her drive the car. Naturally, she’s terrified. Yet, as the years pass, this memory comes to stand in for her father’s attempt to introduce her to the idea of freedom, as if he’s trying to get her to reach out and grasp something that has always eluded him.

Her mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick) tries to warn her away from her absent father at least twice, with “there’s things about your father you don’t know.” This doesn’t stop teen Jennifer and younger brother Nick leaving to move in with dad on one occasion when they’ve had enough of their mum’s alcoholism, nor does it prevent her leaving for good when she’s older and mum’s current boyfriend wanders drunk into Jennifer’s room and attempts for have sex with her. There are also scenes of her parents joyously decorating the farmhouse John bought before the money ran out and it got foreclosed. Patty may not be coping well, but she’s had a raw deal.

However the film isn’t about her. It’s about her daughter and her father. John’s life is shown in flashes glimpsed by Jennifer. The Peter Pan (as her mother described him) who would show up out of the blue and make everyone believe they could be part of a better world. The man who gestures her away from a business meeting, as he calls it, on his driveway with some pretty serious-looking biker types from which he later emerges wounded and bleeding. Who on another occasion, when he seems to be finally talking frankly, admits to serious problems with debts. Who tells her that everyone fakes references on a C.V., an ethic that comes back to bit her when she applies for a journalism course at the University of Minnesota and they can’t trace her references.

In the end, she is an up and coming journalist while he has one scheme after another fall apart. Towards the end, he claims to have put down a payment on a really nice car for her, but it turns out that when he’s ringing the dealer to cancel because his daughter doesn’t want the car any more, he’s faking it – his daughter unplugs the landline without him knowing, and he carries on his part of the conversation. Everything he says is an act and you can’t trust a word.

This is a father and daughter movie in the sense that John and Jennifer are played (at least when she’s an adult) by real life father and daughter Sean Penn and Dylan Penn. Both are complex characters and both actors give arresting performances. (So too do the two girls playing her younger selves. And not only that – they’re well cast so that you really believe it’s the same person, something that doesn’t work if you get the casting wrong, as often happens. It works here, though.)

It’s an impressive piece of directing from Penn because of the way it plays around with time and memory. Some of the memories and /or flashbacks are so vivid you could almost lose yourself in them. The best moments don’t feel staged at all: it’s more as if they just happen in front of the camera.

Flag Day is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 28th.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *