For obvious reasons, "Being Flynn" could not retain the vulgar title of the 2004 memoir on which it's based. Too bad, because its salty, evocative phrase rings out with humor, despair and truth, qualities all on display in this insightful and finely acted film.
Paul Dano is terrific as Nick Flynn, who wrote the memoir and other works, though when we meet him he's unemployed, unfulfilled and emotionally unavailable. ("Well, you warned me," one girlfriend says before kicking him out). And no wonder: Nick's father, Jonathan (Robert De Niro), left years ago to become the next Henry Miller, and his mother, Jody (Julianne Moore), later killed herself.
Damaged, artistic, hiding his problems under hip clothes and a who-cares hairdo, Nick is looking for meaning and thinks he's found it in Denise, a no-nonsense girl who works at the Harbor Street Inn homeless shelter. (Olivia Thirlby plays her in an effective, economical performance). Nick gets a job there, too, and loves it, at least until Jonathan checks in as a guest. Now Nick is forced to face his genetic origins: a half-insane vagrant and -- even worse -- a failed writer.
Told almost evenly though both Flynns' eyes, "Being Flynn" takes a while to find its footing, striking an initial whimsical tone that eventually fades. It's also guilty of some glossing-over: Nick's mother, for instance, is portrayed far more glowingly than in the book. But writer-director Paul Weitz ("About a Boy") digs diligently for emotional truths and makes the most of his excellent cast. De Niro convincingly portrays a proud man sliding into homelessness, but it's Dano -- underused since his bravura performance in "There Will Be Blood" -- who gives this film its fragile and steadily strengthening heart.
PLOT The true story of a damaged young writer and his irascible, homeless father. RATING R (language, violence, drug use, sexuality)
CAST Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, Olivia Thirlby
BOTTOM LINE Sensitive and insightful, with a particularly strong performance from the underrated Dano.