Several years ago, I met the college-aged daughter of a couple I was about to start working for. She had a somewhat rocky relationship with her parents, so she thought she'd warn me about some of their more negative traits that I should watch out for -- her father's explosive anger, her mother's capacity for quiet cruelty, etc. Since I didn't know the couple very well, I thanked the daughter for these bits of inside information. Over the years that I worked with the couple, I watched as the daughter repeatedly displayed these traits with an intensity I never saw from her parents.
I've always felt bad for people who don't get along with their parents, simply because you can never truly get away from them. They shaped the childhood that influences so much of who you will become, and even if they were never around, the hole left by their absence can have just as much of an impact. And even if a parent died or had no involvement or contact with a child, you are always carrying your parents around in your DNA, calling nearly everything that you consider to be distinctly you into question, from physical characteristics to talents and preferences.
In Being Flynn, Nick (Paul Dano) is grappling with the impact his parents had on his life. His father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro), is a con man who abandoned the family early on and harbors delusions that he's one of the greatest writers in American history, while Nick's mother (Julianne Moore) did her best to raise Nick on her own, but eventually tore an even deeper chasm in Nick's life by committing suicide. But despite his resentment towards his father, Nick hopes to become a writer while denying that he wants to be like his father in any way, and when Jonathan suddenly reappears in Nick's life as a resident at the homeless shelter where Nick works, Nick must confront the fact that his father, for all his faults, will always be with him.
Watch my ReThink Review of Being Flynn below.
The nature vs. nurture debate remains unsettled, and many of us spend a large chunk of our lives grappling with how much of our personalities and destinies are determined (or pre-determined) by our childhood experiences, the traits ensconced in our genes, and whatever we think is uniquely us. This is the central dilemma of Being Flynn, which is adapted from the celebrated memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and tells the true story of how Nick Flynn (played by Paul Dano) started working in a homeless shelter, became a drug addict, and reconnected with his delusional, absent father, Jonathan (played by Robert De Niro), when he became a resident at Nick's shelter.
Jonathan, who abandoned his family and hasn't spoken to his son in 18 years, has a grandiose persona and is convinced that he's one of America's greatest writers, even though he hasn't completed his alleged masterpiece. Meanwhile, Nick, who's in his late twenties, has aspirations of being a writer himself, though his more pressing problem is trying to find a job, avoid sabotaging relationships, and reconcile his feelings about his father and the fact that Nick's mom, played in flashbacks by Julianne Moore, committed suicide when he was a teenager, which Nick feels responsible for.
Nick begins working in a Boston homeless shelter alongside Denise, played by Olivia Thirlby, a tough but scarred acquaintance who quickly becomes Nick's girlfriend. But when Jonathan is kicked out of his apartment, loses his job and temporary home in a taxi he drives, and ends up at Nick's shelter, Nick's unresolved issues with his father and the pain of losing his mother return with a vengeance, causing him to develop a drug habit that quickly gets out of control. Meanwhile, Jonathan -- who is also a racist and an overall jerk -- begins to exhibit increasing signs of mental illness, and his behavior and drinking problem get him thrown out of the shelter and onto the cold and dangerous streets.
Being Flynn is directed and adapted by Paul Weitz, who also directed the excellent film About A Boy adapted from Nick Hornby's book, and both films share the unique and challenging trait of having two narrators. Even though Weitz got his big break co-directing the raunchy, pie-fucking classic American Pie, he's shown that he can make more serious films while dialing back the humor to something more organic and subtle, which is quite a feat for a story as dark as Being Flynn.
Dano, in his relatively short career, has proven himself to be one of the most talented and promising young actors of his generation, and he's able to communicate Nick's pain, sadness, anger, and suspicion towards his father without devolving into hysterics or corniness. And while we've sadly seen a lot of slumming by De Niro in crappy films like Little Fockers, New Year's Eve, and Righteous Kill, his performance as the unlikable but compelling Jonathan is some of the best work he's done in a while. Julianne Moore is terrific in the few scenes she's in, and Olivia Thirlby does a solid job, even though her character -- who was invented for the film -- fulfills the male fantasy cliché of the super hot girl/savior who quickly jumps into bed with an unpromising shlub. The homeless shelter, its residents, and its staff add a gritty realism and provide a great illustration of how easily someone like Nick, Jonathan, or really anyone could become lost, as well as the difficult work of redemption.
Even though Being Flynn is currently only scoring a 51 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, I think it's possibly the best film I've seen so far in 2012, and I'm bummed it didn't come out closer to Oscar season since I think it deserves nominations for Dano, De Niro, and its adapted screenplay. Being Flynn could have easily been a maudlin, triumphant tearjerker about forgiveness and transformation, but instead beautifully portrays the difficult, painful work of acknowledging, accepting, and learning to deal with the uglier aspects of our pasts, our families, and ourselves, which is why I'm going high on Being Flynn and giving it a What the Flick rating of 9.3. I'm Jonathan Kim for What the Flick.