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‘Flag Day’: Sean Penn, daughter Dylan mesmerize as father and child at odds

Teen tries to fix her bad dad in the raw and lovely character drama.

Teenage Jennifer (Dylan Penn) thinks she can make an honest man of her con-artist father (Sean Penn) in “Flag Day.”
United Artists

Early on in the raw and lovely and sometimes heartbreakingly authentic “Flag Day,” a man is driving with his family down a winding country road in the middle of the night. While the man’s wife and son are sleeping, he perches his 11-year-old daughter on his lap and says it’s time for her to learn how to drive. It looks like we’re going to have one of those sepia-toned, dripping-in-nostalgia, Americana moments — but then the man announces he’s going to take a nap, and he does just that, leaving his terrified daughter to take the wheel on her own.

This guy isn’t some colorful, larger than life, 20th century dad. He might well think of himself that way, but he’s a stone-cold sociopath.

Every five years or so, Sean Penn directs a film, with the highlights including “The Crossing Guard” (1995), “The Pledge” (2001) and “Into the Wild” (2007). His style favors Terrence Malick and his interests turn toward deliberately paced character studies about deeply flawed individuals caught up in troubling, sometimes deadly circumstances. In “Flag Day,” Sean Penn directs himself for the first time and has cast Dylan Penn, his daughter with Robin Wright, as the lead — and the two are absolutely mesmerizing together, beautifully capturing the enormously complicated dynamic between a con man of a father who rolls out of bed with a fresh set of lies ready to go every morning, and an emotionally broken and bruised daughter who knows her dad is a walking bundle of disappointment but wants to believe that this time — this one time — he really has changed.

Set mostly in the 1970s and 1980s and filmed in a style reminiscent of character-driven gems from that period, “Flag Day” is based on journalist Jennifer Vogel’s 2005 memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life.” In the mid-1970s, Sean Penn’s John Vogel and his wife Patty (Katheryn Winnick from “Vikings” and “Big Sky”) are living in Minnesota with their two young children, 6-year-old Jennifer (Addison Tymec) and 4-year-old Nick (Beckam Crawford) in a house John bought on credit, a house filled with the sounds of fighting and anger as John’s get-rich-quick schemes never pan out while Patty crawls inside a bottle.

When John finally leaves for good, things get so bad with Patty and her drinking and depression that Jennifer and Nick eventually go to live with their father and his young girlfriend Debbie (Bailey Noble). For one fleeting summer, things are mostly good, as evidenced in a sweet scene where John, who loves classical music, is mortified but then tickled when Debbie puts on “Night Moves” by Bob Seger and dances with the kids under the stars. But then it’s time for the kids to go back home and for John to get mixed up in more trouble of his own making.

When we flash forward to the early 1980s, Dylan Penn is now playing the teenage Jennifer, and her brother Hopper is playing Nick in a much smaller role. Jennifer is a goth teen who’s self-medicating with all manner of drugs and is constantly at odds with her mother — and when Mom’s horror show of a live-in boyfriend sexually assaults Jennifer and her mother chooses denial, Jennifer sets off to live with her father.

They’ll fix each other. That’s Jennifer’s plan. She’ll get clean and take a job and maybe even go back to school, and he’ll find work in the straight world and stop with all the shady nonsense. You can imagine how that pans out. Real-life father and daughter are brilliant together even as they employ very different acting styles, with Dylan Penn staying mostly in a lower key while Sean goes as big as he’s ever gone, and we know that’s some big-time raging. It makes sense, though, because the story is being told through Jennifer’s prism — she provides the voice-over narration, and this is really her story — and it would stand to reason she would view her father, fatal flaws and all, as this exaggerated, tragic character.

In the final passages that come full circle with the film’s prologue, Jennifer is in her 20s and working for the Minneapolis alternative paper City Pages, and John has done a long stretch in prison for robbing a bank. One day Jennifer looks out the window of the newspaper’s offices and there’s her father, paroled and freshly groomed and hoping against hope she’ll talk to him for the first time in years, even though he doesn’t deserve that after a lifetime of letdowns.

Of course, we know Jennifer is going to come down the stairs and open the door one more time — and the prologue already told us it’s not going to end well. All we can do is hope Jennifer has reached a place where the lies and the cons can’t hurt her anymore.