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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

After his Cannes premiere of The Last Face was booed in 2016, Sean Penn returns to muted applause with the drama Flag Day. Based on real-life journalist Jennifer Vogel’s memories of her criminal father, it gets off to an engaging start as the young Jennifer and her younger brother Nick flee their neglectful mother, Patty, and go to live with their charismatic father, John Vogel (Sean Penn).

John is now living with another woman, Debbie (Bailey Noble), who treats the kids kindly. They offer a life that’s both caring and exciting: with day trips and dancing, the children feel like they have a family again. But there are warning signals, and when John winds up beaten up by the mysterious men who keep coming to the door the siblings must return to their mother, where danger awaits the teenage Jennifer (now played by Dylan Penn).

The director’s daughter commands attention with a strong screen presence but her performance fails to elevate dialogue that’s often bland and expositionary: not what one would expect from screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth (Get On Up, 2014; Ford vs Ferrari, 2019). There are moments of gentle humour that come from John Vogel’s absurd schemes, including his repetitive insistence that he is juggling various vague business schemes. But Sean Penn’s portrayal puts a greater emphasis on the sadness of this dejected figure, who lies to his daughter constantly and who – if his wife is to be believed – also lies to himself.

Unfortunately, as the story is shown through the eyes of a daughter who found her father an enigma, there is little depth to John Vogel’s character. Like Jennifer, we can only guess at his mental health problems, his motivations, his ambitions. Her narration too often feels like it’s papering the cracks, trying to speculate without offering any clear answers.

Flag Day (2021)

John’s crimes aren’t fully explored either: we only know that he robbed a bank, set up a counterfeiting business and got caught promptly for both. Frankly, he isn’t a very clever criminal, so this is far from a thrilling con artist drama. The reason for the title Flag Day is explained in the narration and various flashbacks to the patriotic American ceremony, but the connection doesn’t feel particularly tangible or engaging.

Flag Day is best when it takes the time to reveal small details. There are a couple of exchanges between Jennifer and her father about drugs that amuse and feel authentic and thought provoking. Initially adamant that he’s never taken drugs, John capitulates when Jennifer finds and steals his stash of cannabis and he challenges her about it. Her desire to smoke weed with him is swiftly denied: he cites ‘boundaries’ as a factor. More scenes of this ilk would have helped colour the relationships and characters.

The supporting cast vary. Child actors Jadyn Rylee and Beckham Crawford do a good job as the young Jennifer and her brother Nick, while Dale Dickey puts in a brief but memorable turn as their drunken grandmother. Josh Brolin is only in a couple of scenes and seems mainly there to deliver some pointed dialogue about the way John has treated Patty. Meanwhile Katheryn Winnick doesn’t have much to work with as Patty and she’s unconvincingly aged in later scenes. Even the great Eddie Marsan feels miscast in a role as an American pesticide representative. And there’s a bafflingly bad scene when Jennifer has an interview with a professor for the University of Minnesota.

Visually the film works well enough, casting the happy childhood scenes in a warm glow and playing with recurring images of fire. John Vogel seems to be literally playing with fire: not only does he torch his former houses (which is shown in detail) but he is often smoking. When he later has a meltdown, the older Jennifer brings him a birthday cake with lit candles – he is moved but cheered. Like John, fire can bring joy as well as threat.

Soon after the birthday cake scene, the film starts to flounder. Jennifer enters a cycle of trusting her father and then feeling betrayed by him, and ennui begins to set in. Changes in her life are shown briskly with montages and a selection of wigs, leaving little room for characterisation or pause for entertaining details. Far from Penn’s finest work, Flag Day is ultimately so busy it becomes surprisingly boring. 

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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