Sean Penn has served on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, leading the panel that gave the 2008 Palme d’Or to the French drama “The Class.” He’s acted in a number of films that have played the fest, including Terrence Malick’s 2011 Palme winner “The Tree of Life.” And he’s been in the Main Competition section as a director twice in the past, for “The Pledge” in 2001 and “The Last Face” in 2016.
All of that makes him a familiar face on the Croisette – but the last of those films also makes him a Cannes vet with something to prove. “The Last Face” was booed at its Cannes press screening and eviscerated by reviewers, with TheWrap’s Ben Croll calling it “a spectacularly misjudged mix of humanitarian intentions and gonzo-terrible execution.” And that means that “Flag Day,” which premiered on Saturday in the Grand Theatre Lumiere, had to be not just Penn’s return to Cannes, but his return to form – which, in a way, it is.
While the film sometimes struggles with disparate tones, it’s a solid, subtle drama that opts in most cases for restraint over excess. It’s far closer to Penn’s more assured earlier works as a director – “The Indian Runner” in 1991, “The Crossing Guard” in 1995, “Into the Wild” in 2007 – than to the missteps of “The Last Face.”
The film opens in June 1992, when John Vogel is arrested for printing $22 million in counterfeit currency and his daughter, Jennifer, is questioned by a police detective. “Memory reckons itself in blurs and flashes,” Jennifer says in voiceover. And, in a way she’s describing the approach taken by Penn, who directed the film and who plays John Vogel as a man of irresistible bluster who can never quite hide the blind panic that drives his every move.
Based on the actual Jennifer Vogel’s memoir “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life” and written by “Ford v Ferrari” screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, “Flag Day” is initially a quiet and lyrical film. Shot mostly, it seems, at the magic hour of dusk, it slips in and out of memory as Jennifer reconstructs her life with her father. The narration can get a bit florid at times, and there’s occasional visual overstatement (as when Jennifer turns her head into the light to reveal one perfect tear rolling down her cheek), but, for the most part Penn, is reaching for subtly, aided by a gentle and largely acoustic score by Joseph Vitarelli.
Jennifer is played by Penn’s real-life daughter, Dylan Penn, and by Addison Tymec and Jadyn Rylee in flashbacks to her as a child and then a young teen. The film is Jennifer’s story, not John’s, and Dylan Penn anchors it in a way that gives her dad the flashy acting moments but keeps “Flag Day” centered on her quiet struggles to come to terms with her life and family.
As a father, John Vogel is playful and reckless, a wild man and an aesthete; this is a guy who can turn the barbecue into an inferno while playing Chopin nocturnes on the stereo. (He can’t understand why his kids would prefer Bob Seger; Penn the director, meanwhile, uses Seger’s “Night Moves” as much for its sense of yearning and loss as for its energy.) And as it goes on, the film develops some of that dichotomy as well: For all his restraint much of the time, Penn can’t help but crank up the volume and push things into melodrama when he thinks the material warrants it.
That’s the tricky balance that “Flag Day” doesn’t always pull off as it veers between being an intimate character study and a melodramatic portrait of a train wreck life. But you can accept Penn going over the top at times, because his John Vogel appears to live his life over the top: While he never seems as if he has the smarts to be a mastermind counterfeiter, hustling is so ingrained in who he is that he’s incapable of spewing a line of B.S. even in seemingly confessional conversations with his daughter.
Fueled by what his daughter says is a “misguided sense of pride,” John is always figuring out on the fly what would be the most effective line to use in any situation, and Sean Penn knows just how to locate that guy and bring him to life. Dylan Penn is similarly persuasive as a young woman who’s been living with her father’s fictions for so long that she’s driven to become a journalist, and to figure out a way she can matter.
As Jennifer learns about John, the story lurches forward; things will be impossibly stormy, and then not much will happen for a while. One new revelation about her father prompts a flashback to an over-the-top blowout; another leads to a marvelous scene in which Jennifer catches her father having an imaginary conversation with a Jaguar dealer on a phone that isn’t even plugged in.
The tonal shifts, and the inherent difficulty in putting volcanic emotions in a film that wants to be restrained and understated, even start to make sense: Jennifer is looking for peace and understanding, John is driven by desperation in every waking moment, and the movie isn’t afraid to go to both of those places. And if the heart of “Flag Day” is Jennifer’s journey, that heart can also be found in a string of lovely new songs, most of them acoustic ballads, written and performed by Cat Power, Eddie Vedder and Glen Hansard; those songs give the film a grace and intimacy it needs, and pull us away from John’s fireworks and back to Jennifer’s story.
The film is messy, not seamless, but it finds a way to work. And for Sean Penn the director, it’s both a family affair and a return to Cannes that is also something of, yes, a return to form.