By Lynn Venhaus
The title “Flag Day” is meant to be a metaphor about the American Dream. Who better to embody the flip side of that, with his usual white-hot intensity, than Sean Penn?

The two-time Oscar winner starred and directed this gut-wrenching character study and gets inside the head of a deeply flawed man, John Vogel, who scammed his way through adulthood. Vogel believed life was a grand adventure but was always seeking easy street — and felt he was owed la dolce vita.

Based on Jennifer Vogel’s 2004 memoir, “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life,” a complicated father-daughter dynamic takes place from 1975 to 1992, mostly in Minnesota, as she learns dad is more of a train wreck than the larger-than-life figure she thought.

This father of two opted for reckless decisions instead of responsibility, which affected his wife, son and daughter.

The realities of his desperation slowly crept into young Jennifer’s psyche, whose mournful voice is heard over the narration. This is her story, of how she salvaged a broken life and became ‘someone who mattered,” pursuing a career as a journalist.

In a masterful debut, Dylan Penn embodies Jennifer with a yearning, an aching sense of loss, and a moral center. She finds the darkness inside the character as well as the light. Dylan, the 30-year-old daughter of Sean and former wife Robin Wright, is a striking, soulful beauty reminiscent of her mother.

The story, which we know won’t end well, is told in flashback. Screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, who wrote “Fair Game” starring Penn and 2019’s smash hit “Ford vs. Ferrari,” have created an emotional connection that some viewers will relate to – because not everyone grew up in a “Leave It to Beaver” sitcom family household.

Golden-hued memories of idyllic summers at one of Minnesota’s lakes contrast family turmoil. After dad left a trail of unpaid bills and broken promises, he split. But mom, Patty (Katheryn Wittock) descended into a bottle, neglecting the kids.

Those who did not have a safe, secure childhood can relate, and identify with Jennifer finding her voice as she struggles to survive the past, but also of that inescapable bond between parent and child.

Jennifer and her brother Nick see-saw between parents and when teenagers, emerge as the brother-and-sister Penns – Dylan is a punk-goth teen by now. Nick is played by Dylan’s younger brother, Hopper Jack Penn.

In the flashbacks, sweet performances are delivered by Addison Tymec, at 6, and Jadyn Rylee, from 11 to 13, as young Jennifer, and Beckam Crawford as young Nick, age 9-11.

In his sixth directorial effort – and first one featuring him acting, Penn covers a lot of ground. While he is especially good in the interactions with his daughter, he also lapses into proud dad behind the director’s chair, perhaps a little too indulgent with camera time on Dylan. She is, though, destined for stardom.

This might not be in the same league as his best work, “Into the Wild” in 2007, but Penn is a smart storyteller.

One of the film’s drawbacks is the brief turns by accomplished actors. Josh Brolin is part of two scenes as Vogel’s brother Beck (he and Penn worked together on “Milk”) and you want more of him. Regina King is a federal agent and St. Louis’ own, two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz, plays against type as mom’s creepy boyfriend who attempts to assault Jennifer.

When mom turns a blind eye, Jennifer takes off to live with dad, and while she tries to steer him to a normal routine, that ends with more lies, schemes and a prison sentence for armed robbery. He can no longer fool his daughter.

Jennifer’s redemption and John’s lack of is how the film crawls to its inevitable conclusion, as Vogel is targeted by U.S. Marshals after counterfeiting $22 million. He was the most notorious counterfeiter in U.S. history and the subject of an “Unsolved Mysteries” in May 1995.

Melancholy tinges nearly the entire production, but there are moments of love and joy, and some glimmers of hope.

Cinematographer Danny Moder excels at capturing the youthful nostalgia and the patriotic pageantry of American holidays celebrated by many municipalities across the land.

The music is a high point, from composer Joseph Vitarelli and featuring acoustic songs written by Cat Powers, Glen Hansard (“Once”) and Eddie Vedder.

But the main takeaway is a haunting father-daughter story made more poignant by the talent and skills of a real father and daughter.

“Flag Day” is a 2021 true crime drama directed by Sean Penn and starring Dylan Penn, Sean Penn, Katherine Wittock, Hopper Jack Penn, Regina King, Josh Brolin, Bailey Noble, Norbert Leo Butz and Eddie Marsan. Rated R for language, some drug use and violent content, with a run time of 1 hour, 49 minutes. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, the film opens in theaters on Aug. 27. Lynn’s Grade: B+.

By Lynn Venhaus
Self-quarantining is something we have had to adapt to these past 11 months, and have dealt with grief, collective or personal, as more than 450,000 lives have been lost in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.  “Land” taps into those feelings through a personal journey of Edee Mathis, who has lost her husband and son (But not in COVID-19 times).

A grief-stricken woman (Robin Wright) chucks modern conveniences and city life for a primitive cabin, complete with outhouse, in Wyoming. Edee Mathis has decided to live in isolation, so she chucks her cell phone, has someone pick up her rental car and proceeds to carve an existence in the wilderness.

Wright, the fine actress whose breakout role was “The Princess Bride,” wrings out emotions as inconsolable Edee, who goes off the grid and deals with nature’s relentless cruelty while she copes with such a devastating blow. She faces a string of calamities, as she is unprepared and not yet adept yet at survival skills in harsh conditions. It is miserable.

She is in constant sorrow, and that is about all we know, for the character lacks context for most of the movie and then there are predictable developments. Many close-ups indicate her anguish.

One day, near death, she is randomly rescued by Miguel (Demian Bichir), on his way back from hunting, and he brought his Native American nurse friend Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) with him. Edee slowly heals and develops a bond with Miguel, another lost soul, but she is very private and does not reveal too much about herself.

The film’s third act is contrived, and the emotional payoff feels as if we are cheated. After hitting the notes – connecting after shutting one’s self down, learning to live with unbearable pain and all the feelings brought on by reminiscence, “Land” lets us down.

The script by Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam gets rather stale as it goes over well-worn cliches. Wright, who is such an intelligent, intuitive actress, deserved better material to work with, but as a director, she keeps the narrative moving. The film is a tidy 88 minutes, with little padding.

As seasons change, the majestic mountain view is a sight to behold. Of course, you would expect Big Sky Country to be awe-inspiring, with its proximity to three national parks, only the movie was shot in Alberta, Canada. However, cinematographer Bobby Bukowski takes advantage of the natural beauty and makes the vistas a stunning component.

A couple cover songs by British indie folk group, The Staves, are well-chosen to bracket the personal journey.

As she restores her well-being, Edee’s steps forward, each one seems hard fought. But “Land” has too little details to keep us thoroughly engrossed.

“Land” is a drama directed by Robin Wright, who also stars, with Demian Bichir and Kim Dickens. Rated PG-13 for thematic content, brief strong language, and partial nudity, the film runs 1 hour, 29 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B-. In theatres Feb. 12.