Flag Day (2022)
Director: Sean Penn
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth
Starring: Sean Penn, Dylan Penn, Addison Tymec, Katheryn Winnick, Jaydn Rylee, Josh Brolin, Hopper Penn
With seemingly the whole Penn family involved in this story of a fractured family, centred on the relationship between father John Vogel (Sean Penn) and his daughter Jennifer (Dylan Penn), you would expect something wonderful to come of Flag Day (2022). Father and daughter play father and daughter; surely this has to work. With John, the pitiful crook trying to find freedom however it fits his world, and Jennifer trying to find her place in a family where nobody seems to care, it seems the perfect recipe for a strong, emotional film.
The end result, unfortunately, is so underwhelming that Flag Day becomes a chore to get through. The performances aren’t awful, though nothing to write home about. Dylan Penn has a few good shouting matches, and Sean Penn manages to play John with a fair amount of nuance, wanting to do right by his daughter but never managing to know exactly how to do it. And the basic plotline itself, in principle, isn’t disastrous either. But a basic plotline not being disastrous is about as high praise as we can get when we consider that Flag Day’s execution is unrefined and lifeless.
Sean Penn’s directing gets better towards the film’s end, but there are too many unnecessary hand-held shots, too many zooms; the emotional moments are riddled with artificial attempts to wring out an extra undeserved tear from the viewer. One of the best moments in the film, with Jennifer running away from her home in the dead of night and passing under a bridge, is presented in a beautiful wide but spoiled by an obnoxious need to push in, as if we can’t let the image speak for itself. The editing doesn’t help matters, refusing to keep on emotional moments and never allowing them to breathe. The whole point of this film is to create empathy for the characters, and there’s no better tool than the actors; so why aren’t we giving the performances the time they need? It baffles the mind.
The writing is blunt, uninspired, and borders on cliché. The cyclical narrative structure also feels off, because the first fifteen minutes feels more like a disjointed series of vignettes than a strong, consistent beginning to the narrative. When it finally gets going in a single chronological order, it’s fine. The beginning throws it off, struggling to gain purchase, and it not only affects how engaged we are to begin the story but lessens the emotional impact of the ending. It seems that someone said they need something ‘action-y’ at the beginning to get the hearts pumping so they threw a little of the finale in at the beginning.
All in all, the poor directing, writing, editing, and in some places cinematography and camerawork, all give Flag Day the feeling of an un-cared-for final piece. All the emotion that could have been built up falls by the wayside, and we end up with a bland bildungsroman with nothing new, fresh or imaginative to offer. It’s not even an efficient re-run of themes and storylines we’ve already seen.
There really isn’t any point to this film, other than it gave a paycheck to the cast and crew who worked on it. The assistant camera tech trainees are probably grateful to it for that reason, but they might be the only ones.
Vertigo Releasing presents Flag Day in cinemas and on digital 28 January.