As deliberately paced a film as you’ll likely see this year, ‘For Ellen’ is a flawed yet somewhat compelling character study that is buoyed by what may very well be Paul Dano’s best performance yet. Dano disappears into the role of a struggling musician fighting for a share of the custody of his young daughter Ellen. Writer/director So Yong Kim keeps the audience mostly at arm’s length, and it’s a testament to Dano that your interest is mostly held throughout. Parts of the film are beautiful in their simplicity, but other parts are frustrating in their obtusity. Completely forming this movie around Dano was an excellent decision and he doesn’t disappoint, but too often there are scenes that don’t go anywhere and the film begins to get repetitive and feels far longer than its 94 minute length. Kim is a filmmaker with a very distinctive style, and while it serves the flick well at times, other instances made me wish she had gone with a slightly more accessible style. Still, she got a tremendous performance out of Paul Dano, and that’s something I always appreciate. The film is a bit of a letdown for me, considering I’ve been looking forward to it for some time, but it’s still very interesting and well worth seeing if you have an interest.
Joby Taylor (Dano) is an aspiring rock star who currently is struggling to make music a viable career choice. He’s had a flirtation with fame, but to date has never quite made it. That success is all he’s ever wanted in life, and that pursuit has come at the expense of everything else, including his wife Claire (Margarita Levieva) and daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). Though he has a girlfriend named Susan (Jena Malone), it seems that music is all that he’s interested in, and that lack of success has worn him down. He’s hit a low point when he agrees to sign divorced papers that his estrange mate has drawn up. The thing is, he didn’t realize that they stipulate that he’ll lose custody of Ellen. His lawyer Fred (Jon Heder) can’t help him, so Joby does the only thing that he feels can be done…he hops in his car and drives to visit his daughter. He’s negotiated one short visit with Ellen, so this is really his only shot at figuring things out. Can he let her go? Can he find a way to still see her? Does he deserve her in his life? Is he even wanted in hers? These are the questions the film sets out to answer, but it may leave things annoyingly incomplete for some.
Paul Dano is always a good bet to turn in a solid performance, but he outdoes himself here. Between his exemplary work in ‘Ruby Sparks’, his unusual turn in ‘Being Flynn’, and his upcoming part in ‘Looper’…he’s having a hell of a year. I’d say that he’s given 2 of his 5 best performances to date in 2012 (‘Ruby Sparks’ and here with ‘For Ellen’), doing his part to make sure he’s not pigeonholed as an actor. Here, he dirties himself up to play a wannabe rock star, but still manages to maintain a level of likability that helps draw you in. You’re not sure about this character, but Dano’s performance keeps you fascinated by him. He’s tender yet full of anger here, but obvious love for his daughter, even if might be too late. I really can’t say enough about Dano in this movie. Everyone else just kind of fades into the scenery, which is a shame in the case of an underrated actress like Jena Malone. She’s almost just putting in a cameo appearance, though her arrival in the third act does set off a final decision for Joby. Jon Heder has a straight role to play here, and while he’s fine, he’s nothing special. The rest of the cast includes the aforementioned Margarita Levieva and newcomer Shaylena Mandigo, along with Dakota Johnson and Alex Mauriello (which basically makes up the entire cast of this small production). The obvious star is Paul Dano, and while he won’t get the acclaim that he deserves for this flick, I hope at least the Spirit Awards remember to cite him.
What keeps me from fully recommending this movie are the writing and directing choices of filmmaker So Yong Kim. Her style is a known commodity by now, one that fits in nicely with her partner Bradley Rust Gray (they basically take turns making movies, with the one not writing and directing doing producing duties and assistant direction), even if he’s been more effective at making a complete film out of it (notably in ‘The Exploding Girl’) in my eyes. Here, she’s very interested in long takes and close ups of Dano’s face, which are all well and good, but after a while it becomes a bit too much. The direction feels like it’s repeating itself before the halfway point, something the script suffers from as well. Things pick up a bit when Joby is with Ellen, but then it slows down again, culminating in an odd choice for the final moments of the film. I won’t spoil it, but I don’t think many people will be happy with how it ends. I didn’t hate the ending, but I wasn’t in love with it either. My main issue here is her pacing. She takes her time with this story in a way that I think was a mistake. A sense of urgency would have been more effective, at least in my eyes.
Overall, ‘For Ellen’ is a chamber piece that keeps you at arm’s length but features an excellent lead performance, so that goes in its favor for sure. Paul Dano is pretty much the reason to see this movie (unless you’re a huge fan of ‘Treeless Mountain’, I suppose), but I wish the film on the whole was a bit more satisfying. Take this 2 and a half star review as me leaving the ultimate decision up to you (much as I did recently with ‘Hello I Must Be Going’, a similar instance of loving the lead performance but feeling more conflicted about the work on the whole, specifically its pacing and coldness) in terms of seeing it or not. I won’t fully recommend it, but I won’t tell you to avoid the flick either. I think it’s worth seeing in the end, but the choice is yours…just be aware of the movie’s flaws.
-Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!
Tags: Bradley Rust, Dakota Johnson, Entertainment/Culture, Jena Malone, Joby Taylor, Paul Dano, The Exploding Girl, underrated actress, Writer /Director