The frozen, blustery landscape of upstate New York plays a key role in FOR ELLEN, the third feature from Korean-born, California-raised director So Yong Kim. This austere setting appropriately reflects the themes of the piece, providing an elemental blank canvas for a poignant tale of familial estrangement.
Paul Dano is Joby Taylor, a frustrated and frustrating rock musician. He’s en route (via what must be the first cinematic car crash involving an Egg McMuffin) to a small-town lawyer’s office to finalise his divorce from Claire (an almost silent Margarita Levieva), but the formalities come to an abrupt halt when, having talked with his own lawyer (Jon Heder, NAPOLEON DYNAMITE), Joby belatedly realises that the settlement includes no chances to see his young daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), whom he has never met. The story follows this profoundly irresponsible man’s attempts to reset his priorities away from his ambitions for stardom and towards the possible fulfilment of fatherhood.
It’s in the subtle, observational moments that So Yong Kim’s craft really shines. FOR ELLEN is particularly impressive as an example of a female director investigating the despondent soul of her male protagonist. Paul Dano puts in an extremely brave performance: those doleful eyes beg for sympathy; the wounded expressions wordlessly fill in all the gaps.
Eventually Joby is given two hours with Ellen. Two hours to introduce himself, form a bond and change his life. This is presented as a 25-minute sequence that would make an impressive short film in itself. There is a delicate awkwardness throughout, but never more so than when this ill-equipped, childlike adult shares a meandering car journey with the mature, tactful kid. During a conversation at a shopping mall, Ellen suddenly brings Joby’s blurred outlook in to focus, finally forcing him to consider the needs of another.
There is an inherent truthfulness to this film, based as it is on the director’s own troubled memories, and each performance is played perfectly, with a well-measured dose of humour in all the appropriate places. While cold air permeates every scene, FOR ELLEN invites us all to strive towards a warmer place.