It’s not every day you come across a film that boasts a father-daughter duo in the lead roles, even rarer when the father is doubling as director. But this unique concoction is precisely what Sean Penn’s Flag Day offers as he teams with his daughter Dylan to tell the true story of Jennifer (Dylan) and John Vogel (Sean), a pair with the most tumultuous of father/daughter relationships. 

One line early in the film claims: “You can never trust a bastard born on Flag Day”. It’s a mostly unimportant line said by a character present in only that scene, yet it sums up the entire movie. John Vogel was born on Flag Day, and as he weaves in and out of his children’s lives, he constantly finds ways to screw up and disappoint due to his criminal lifestyle. But all Dylan wants to do is love that bastard. It’s reminiscent in many ways to Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, which isn’t a comparison I make kindly. Yes, Penn’s film is better than Howard’s, but neither tugs the heartstrings as much as intended. 

The issue with these pictures is the sheer amount of drama they seek to tell the tale of. It’s challenging to get any proper flow by cutting from one screaming match to another, and Penn can’t find it here. And ultimately, this lack of flow leads to the worst kind of melodrama, which is such a shame because his own performance and the one he gets out of his rising star daughter are both powerful. The Penn’s take their existing relationship and twist it into the film’s toxic one without losing the bond so crucial to the story. Flag Day is at its best during the middle of the film when John gives it his only real shot at going straight. There aren’t any tears here; only their legitimate connection, and it shines.

When Flag Day is at its worst, all the screams and tears just become too much. Each moment draws an admirable performance, but Penn is not at his best behind the camera. He often ties the camera to his daughter’s face and holds the shot as she falls apart, and it just feels like everyone is trying too hard, which is a great disservice to Dylan’s otherwise poignant work. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth’s script could have used some thinning to help this, but ultimately things feel as if they fall apart in the director’s chair. 

Penn was looking to make an odyssey, perhaps one reminiscent of his Into the Wild from 2007. And right at the very end, some might feel that in following Jennifer, we’ve been on such a journey. I know I felt that for at least a moment, but it faded just as quickly as it came, there’s no lasting impression to find here, and I think that’s the biggest issue of all. It primarily arises because the narration, particularly at the start of the film, exists only as a crutch to roll out exposition instead of any attempt at nuance to show us these things. Had more care been shown, perhaps there would be something to think about as the credits roll.

I think it’s important to note that only these dramatic scenes feel poorly composed. The rest of the film is quite beautifully shot by cinematographer Daniel Moder. There are two or three powerful needle drops throughout, and each plays alongside gorgeously golden shots of farmland and intimate childhood memories. They are so beautiful they almost make the exposition dumps enjoyable, but only almost. Highlighting this only reaffirms that there is a great film is in here somewhere, the story is affecting, and the performances were great, but there just wasn’t enough to piece it all together. 

Flag Day has moments where it soars high, but much like John Vogel, it can’t help but find ways to fall back into its worst tendencies, and as such, the final product fails to impress. 

Flag Day is in cinemas and on digital 28 January from Vertigo Releasing