[Review] – For Ellen

28 Sep

Title: For Ellen
Year: 2012
Director: So Yong Kim
Writer: So Yong Kim
Starring: Paul Dano, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Jon Heder, Dakota Johnson, Shaylena Mandigo
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Runtime: 94 min
IMDb Rating: 5.5
Rotten Tomatoes: 42%
Metacritic: 55

Paul Dano is a very talented actor, someone who I really feel should be a bigger name by now and someone I feel will most certainly be regarded as one of the best actors of his generation once it’s all said and done. It actually took me a while to get used to that idea, mostly because I still associated him with Klitz, the character he played in the teen comedy The Girl Next Door, but the performances he’s delivered in the year since, in films like Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Meek’s Cutoff and this year’s great Ruby Sparks have all been something special. Not to mention that they’ve come in great films from talented filmmakers, so he knows who to pair up with and great people want to pair up with him.

For Ellen, the fifth Sundance film I’m seeing in a row, sees him starring as Joby Taylor, this struggling musician, the kind who’s flirted with success before but never actually achieved it. Having not achieved fame also means that Joby is pretty down on his luck financially speaking which makes him sign the divorce papers his estranged wife, played by Margarita Levieva, offers up because that will allow him to get some monetary compensation from the sale of their home. What he wasn’t anticipating, however, was that his signature also meant he was giving up custody of his six-year-old daughter.

Like the title of the film says, everything Joby does here is for Ellen, for his daughter, and we will follow him as he takes this long, overnight road trip to find her and see the daughter he’s left behind and maybe see if he can salvage their relationship. The film, to be honest, isn’t all that stunning; I mean, it’s quite good, but it also kind of drags along a bit. Films like this one that drag along can be quite rewarding ultimately but even if you’re patient with For Ellen you might find that the payoff lacked some of the depth you wanted from it, though I do think one has to applaud the sincerity with which it operates and especially the central performance from Mr. Dano who makes even those lulling moments feel very moving.

He’s really the reason to see this film and he continues to really impress me with his body of work and the stuff he can do. After all, we have seen this type of character before, not only the rockstar who could have been but is now a failure but also the deadbeat father that many films tackle. The way Mr. Dano plays that role is unlike any other way it’s been played before; he just really got into the role and understood this guy for what he was. As a result we see Joby as this totally lost young man, a guy who was just wandering through life and who now faces a real tough, adult situation that so severely confuses him.

Director So Yong Kim, if you know her work, definitely knows how to handle this style of filmmaking. She’s the one responsible for the great Korean imports that were In Between Days and Treeless Mountain, two very intimate and moving films that, like the best films from that country, excelled at showing us this kind of slice-of-life aspect of their reality. That style of filmmaking in her first English language feature has made for a film that, while inferior to its predecessors, still was really neat in how it knew to be patient with the narrative. You need to be good to make that work, you can’t just let the camera still and the surroundings quiet, you need to know exactly what you’re going for, and of course it helps if you have an actor like Mr. Dano making the quiet moments speak.

You know what other performance I want to point out? Jon Heder‘s. This is something I never thought I’d say because ever since his breakout role in Napoleon Dynamite the man has acted in every other film he’s been in exactly like he did in that indie hit, not once being able to shed the goofy persona and just unimpressive as a rule. Here he finally leaves that whole schtick behind and gives a really nice subdued performance as this well-meaning lawyer pal of Joby’s who really can’t do much to help him out.

I can already see some people being turned off by this film when they get to watch it. A part of me actually understands why that would be the case, with Ms. Kim just taking her sweet time establishing all that she wants to have established not really exploring the main problem in the film until some time has passed, instead just observing her desperate, angry and frustrated main character. The whole first half of the film is really slow, but it’s slow on purpose, so that you get to really know and experience the reality Joby lives in and so that you can appreciate what it took for him to finally get off his ass and do something to contact his daughter, something only starts happening about 50 minutes or so into the film.

When we get to meet Ellen, played by the young Shaylena Mandigo who does a really nice job here, we get to see the change in Joby’s life. At first this guy was this loser aimlessly wandering through a life that held nothing for him, and now finally he’s presented something to live for. The fact that the first half of the film dragged on for as a long as it did only makes the second half more poignant and allows you to really relate with Joby. Low-key and naturalistic, I don’t know how much of an audience For Ellen will be able to find, but this is worth it for Mr. Dano’s performance alone, trust me, this guy is heading to some really great place.

Grade: B


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