Review by Dan Skip Allen
Sean Penn has had quite the career for himself. He's won two Academy Awards for lead actor for Mystic River and Milk in the 2000s. In the last decade, he hasn't been doing much except Gangster Squad and The Professor and the Madman, neither of which were well received. He has mostly concentrated his efforts on his humanitarian work in Haiti lately. The opportunity to direct and star opposite his children must have enticed him to get back in the saddle again.
John Vogel (Sean Penn) is a con man who tries to get people to invest in his schemes. Most of the time they don't work. He gets arrested for robbing a bank because he's broke all the time. His wife, Patty Vogel (Katherine Winnick, Vikings) has had enough of his lying and scheming. She kicks him out and is left with the kids. The problem is she's not much better at raising them and providing for them than he was. Their father has one last of showing them he's worth a damn during summer vacation at a lake house.
The kids in the film, Jennifer Vogel and Nick Vogel, were played by Penn's real children, Dyan Frances Penn and Hopper Jack Penn. This made the film a family affair. The standout of the pair was Penn's daughter. She had the brunt of the dialogue and screen time between the two of them. The whole film keyed on her performance. She does a good job at being emotional, mad, happy, and quizzical at times. Her father puts her into all these different stages of emotions which can bring out her acting chops. The Apple doesn't fall far from the tree with her, the daughter of two well-renowned actors.
Penn makes some very interesting choices with the camera work in the film. He uses shallow depth of field quite a bit in this film as well as super 8 camera shots trying to capture a more gritty and lived-in feeling to the film. The super 8 shots are from various scenes of vacations and family outings. The muted colors and grain of the film have shown the period the film takes place in, mostly in the '70s and '80s. Penn is effective in capturing this era of film with his style this time out.
The story of this film is based on a book called The Flim-Flam Man: The Story of My Father's Life by Jennifer Vogel. The screenplay was written by Jez Butterworth. They pretty much got the gist of this story in the film. The thing is it's a very familiar trope. The child tries to save the wayward parent or vice versa. It's not an original story. That is the bad part about this film. No matter what Penn and company do, they can't shake that fact.
Penn is established both as a director and an actor. He makes this film a distinct vision mostly through cinematography and a strong soundtrack with songs from John Fogerty and various other artists that ring throughout the film cementing the feel Penn was going for. The acting by his daughter, Winnick, and himself are all solid as well. I just can't get my mind past the fact that this film feels so familiar to others I've seen in the past. It's too bad, this film had potential.
Flag Day is now in theaters.