As a director, Sean Penn seems drawn to stories featuring lost children of one sort or another, a proclivity that has resulted in some of his strongest work. His latest film, “Flag Day,” tills similar soil: The awakening of a daughter whose adored father is not the demigod she believes him to be.
Set mainly in Minnesota and adapted from Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir, “Flim-Flam Man,” Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s screenplay constructs a broken-family melodrama mired in sentimentality. The flowery narration that Jennifer (played as a teen and adult by Penn’s daughter, Dylan Penn) uses to describe her father’s electrically disruptive comings and goings in her life, doesn’t help; though it does enable a gauzy, ethereal mood that the cinematographer Danny Moder runs with, lending his picturesque prairie landscapes the softly blurred quality of old photographs.
The film opens in 1992 with Jennifer finally learning that her father, John (Penn, directing himself for the first time), has been concealing a violent and colorful criminal past. Flashbacks reveal him to be a complex, charismatic scoundrel whose reckless schemes leave his wife (Katheryn Winnick) and children — a brother, played by Penn’s son, Hopper Jack Penn, is barely seen — to fend for themselves.
Heavy-handed and more than a little pretentious, “Flag Day” seems to view John’s volatile fortunes as a metaphor for those of his country. (Close-ups of worn, anonymous faces drift across the screen, symbols of heartland struggle.) Yet Penn gives him a vivid, wheedling desperation that’s weirdly moving, and the younger Penn has clearly inherited the emotional expressiveness of her mother, Robin Wright. Maybe that’s why “Flag Day” feels as much a love letter from Penn to his own daughter as the story of someone else’s.
Rated R for drinking, thieving and a bloody reckoning. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.
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