Sean Penn’s Flag Day

Sean Penn has always been one of the most fascinating, honest and down to earth filmmakers in terms of tone, style and theme and his latest father daughter drama Flag Day is a magnificently acted, deeply sorrowful piece of work that shows us this artist still has a lot to give and to say in his medium. It tells the autobiographical tale of Jennifer Vogel (Dylan Penn, his real life daughter), a teenage runaway with a painfully tumultuous family life whose mother (Kathryn Winnick) is married to an abusive prick and is blind to his ways and whose father (Penn) is a degenerate con artist and perennial fuck-up who tries to do right by his family but seems star crossed with his own self destruction. I’m not sure if the real Jennifer Vogel had it *this* bad (I guess I should read the book) but it’s a testament to this girl’s spirit, bravery and resilience that after abuses, years on the road, hopelessly dysfunctional family life and unspeakable hardships she came out on top as a successful college graduate and influential journalist, here chronicled in wistful, hazy, fragmented episodic memories that have a genuine disarray and scattered quality to them, the same way memory feels to us when we try to recall things in a straight line and our minds grasp at keystone moments out of space and time for a recollection that isn’t always coherent. The strongest quality and beacon of light the film has is Dylan Penn, daughter of Sean and Robin Wright in her first lead role. She is unbelievably talented, emotionally truthful and intuitive in her craft and her performance is jaw dropping, for starters. Sean Penn himself is great, playing a character that’s very hard to like and bringing heart to his scenes with her but she is positively on another level with her performance here, selling the hurt, strength, feeling of being betrayed by her own parents and her eventual arc from scared, lost teen girl to assured, battle hardened young woman with a grace, ease and flow that has to be seen to be believed, the best female performance this year easily. The film itself is your call, I loved it but the marketing makes it seem like this “father and daughter against the world” thing when in truth it’s daughter against the world, including her father, mother and most around her who are either absent, untrustworthy or not up to the task of being in her life. Only a kind, sympathetic uncle (a brief Josh Brolin) is anything close to a constructive influence on her journey. Penn has always made challenging, melancholic films about human beings going through unimaginable changes and sometimes taking pretty devastating falls, from The Indian Runner to The Crossing Guard to Into The Wild to The Pledge (my personal favourite), he always has an uncanny eye for the middle class, the people that don’t often get their voices heard in majorly produced scripts, the ones who tend to fall by the wayside unless someone is willing to tell their story. In this case Vogel took it upon herself to tell her own story and Penn has adapted it in a beautiful, moving, incredibly depressing but ultimately very human story, giving his daughter a voice and a canvas to paint her masterful portrayal of one girl who, despite everything, made it to a better life. Phenomenal film.

-Nate Hill

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