Childhood isn’t easy for a lot of people, but for Jennifer Vogel, it was a little harder. That’s because Dad left, and Mom hit the bottle. Mom eventually cleaned herself up, but Dad never came back. He couldn’t. Shady business deals with the wrong sorts of people kept him on the move and kept him and out of Jennifer’s life. Maybe that’s why Jennifer tries so hard to understand her father, John Vogel. Or maybe it’s because Sean Penn, the movie’s director, plays John.
Directed by and starring Penn, Flag Day is the story of a daughter’s relationship with her father, seen through the eyes of dear old dad. Does Jennifer know John is a criminal? She probably suspects: A heated conversation with some imposing-looking biker types that leaves John with a broken nose and a missing tooth ought to tip off any kid, but Jennifer doesn’t worry all that much. As long as she doesn’t have to go live with Mom (Katheryn Winnick), then I guess she’s fine to navigate whatever Dad has cooking.
Told in flashback, Flag Day features three actresses stepping in as Jennifer: Addison Tymec at age 6, Jadyn Rylee at age 11, and Penn’s daughter, Dylan, for everything else. I imagine in the early stages of the production, Penn and Dylan thought a real-life father-daughter combo would be the perfect way to understand this father-daughter combo. It doesn’t add much. Nor does the movie’s style, which looks like they flipped on the Terrence Malick filter on After Effects and called it good. Flag Day is supposed to be a period piece, primarily in 1981 and 1985, but it doesn’t particularly look or feel like either. It just feels grainy.
What in the world is this movie about? Jennifer grows up in a broken home, leaves her mother to live with her father, then goes to college and becomes a journalist while navigating her father’s lies. That’s more or less the story, but what for? Flag Day is based on Jennifer Vogel’s memoir, Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life, which, according to the book’s synopsis, says that John Vogel, the real John Vogel, singlehandedly counterfeited nearly 20 million dollars. That’s impressive—why wasn’t Flag Day about that? How does one get into counterfeiting currency and pass bills without raising questions? How did he perfect his art? Where did he get his resources? Jennifer wasn’t privy to John’s private life, but she was around enough to see him hit some pretty low points. You’d think she’d notice some of the financial benefits, too—even if it’s just a stack of hundos stuffed in the closet.
But Flag Day isn’t interested in any of that. Instead, Penn and screenwriter Jez Butterworth use the “counterfeit life” in Vogel’s subtitle as free range to explore an unreliable father’s endless string of lies and excuses. It’s shallow and indulgent, and the whole thing comes off like poverty porn ennobled by poetic shots of fields of grass, children at play, and other nonsense like that to depict a paradise lost. Add in a bunch of screeching fights between family members, and there you go.
Flag Day (2021)
Directed by Sean Penn
Written by Jez Butterworth
Based on the memoir Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life by Jennifer Vogel
Produced by William Horberg, Jon Kilik, Fernando Sulichin
Starring: Sean Penn, Dylan Penn, Hopper Penn, Addison Tymec, Jadyn Rylee, Katheryn Winnick
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Rated R, Running time 109 minutes, Opens Aug. 27, 2021.