'For Ellen': Paul Dano is riveting in thinly plotted fatherhood drama
A movie review of "For Ellen," a thinly plotted indie drama in which Paul Dano gives a riveting performance as a depressed, down-and-out rock musician struggling to reconnect with the young daughter he's never known.
Special to The Seattle Times
'For Ellen,' with Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Shaylena Mandigo, Margarita Levieva. Written and directed by So Yong Kim. 93 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains brief profanity). SIFF Cinema at the Uptown.
In Korean-American writer-director So Yong Kim's third feature, "For Ellen," the always-interesting young character actor Paul Dano ("There Will Be Blood") plays Joby Taylor, a down-and-out rocker whose life is in a state of chronic disarray.
His bandmates want him out, even though he's their singer and frontman. His estranged wife, Claire (Margarita Levieva), is fighting for custody of their young daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo); and when Joby drives to cold, snowy upstate New York to sign their divorce agreement, he discovers his locally hired attorney Fred (Jon Heder) is a mild-mannered square who still lives with his mother.
Not that he really needs an attorney: Joby's a mess, an open wound clearly suffering from chronic depression; and despite his harmless disposition, he's almost certainly unfit for fatherhood. That makes his delicate, possibly final encounter with Ellen the beating heart of Kim's quiet, contemplative study of a poignantly tragic figure.
Add this to her previous films "In Between Days" and "Treeless Mountain," and it's clear that Kim has indie cred and talent to spare. At its best, "For Ellen" compares favorably to such praiseworthy micro-budget features as Lance Hammer's "Ballast," Steven Soderberg's "Bubble" and Megan Griffith's made-in-Seattle feature "The Off Hours."
And yet despite Dano's riveting, deeply internalized performance as a good, well-meaning man who's tragically ill-equipped to handle adulthood, "For Ellen" falls short of those other, better films. Its anemic plot is almost nonexistent, and there's not enough substance to support Kim's languid style, resulting in a too-relaxed, 93-minute feature (the same length as "The Off Hours") that could easily shed 10 minutes without sacrificing its emotional core.