Like many men of his generation, Nick Flynn (Paul Dano) is defined by his relationship, or lack thereof, with his father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro). Jonathan is a racist, a homophobe, and a drunk and he abandoned Nick and his mother (Julianne Moore) when Nick was only a small boy, communicating with his son only through letters. The only bonds these two share are blood and a preoccupation with writing. But despite his disgust for the man, Nick never can quite shake the need to live up to his father’s image, even if that image is completely fabricated. After nearly twenty years of silence, Jonathan reaches out to Nick in need of a favor and almost out of curiosity more than anything else, Nick lends a hand and suddenly finds himself interacting with a man he both hardly knows and knows all too well. Before long, Jonathan has been forced to take up residence in the homeless in which Nick works, forcing the younger Flynn to take a long and painful trip down the path to internal peace with both his father and himself.
Being Flynn is based on the memoir of the real-life Nick Flynn, who worked as a social worker in a Boston homeless shelter in the late ’80s where he ended up under the same roof as his father. The tale of the Flynns is a complex one to say the least and it is presented here in a style that pulls no punches. Indeed, Being Flynn is much more difficult to watch that I expected going in. Jonathan Flynn is, for lack of a better, family-friendly term, a miserable old coot, a holdover from a different time who has never adjusted to the world around him. On top of his vocal racism and homophobia, he is thoroughly arrogant in the worst way possible: he’s never accomplished anything with his life and yet he expects others to treat him as if he has. In Jonathan’s mind, there have only been three great American writers and he is one of them, despite never having had a work published. Worse yet, a life of poor choices and weighty entitlement have only aided in the speed with which his brain is deteriorating, leading Jonathan to lash out violently in both word and action. In short, he is an impossible character to love and even to feel pity for him proves difficult. In the midst of this stands Nick, torn between the childhood need for a father and the adult reason that tells him to kick the man to the curb. He simultaneously hates his father and desires his approval. This dynamic creates a tense, painful atmosphere that made it a challenge for me to sit still without squirming. To be honest with you, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.