An emotional and well-acted piece is occasionally undermined by sentimentality and an all-too-familiar ending.
Korean-born filmmaker and artist So Yong Kim made her stunning debut with In Between Days (2006), for which she won a Special Jury Prize for Independent Vision at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Following sophomore effort Treeless Mountain (2008), Kim returns to the humanistic character studies that she has excelled at in the past.
After travelling overnight on a long-distance drive, Joby (Paul Dano) arrives in a cold climate for a meeting with his lawyer (Jon Heder) and his soon-to-be ex-wife. Spun about by this new turn of events, Joby’s fatherly absenteeism is about to be given a last chance to right itself as he tries to be in his daughter Ellen’s (Shaylena Mandigo) life.
For Ellen begins as a fascinating study of a handful of people who have been living separate lives, suddenly brought together and forced to feel something about it. Dano’s Joby is the definitive drifter, replete with tattoos, scrappy facial hair and unwashed hair. In the hands of a less accomplished actor, Joby could be the subject of derision and great humour, a relic who has never quite grown out of the rebellion of his youth. Yet Dano grounds him with heartfelt enthusiasm, carrying us into his head space. Whether dancing to heavy rock solo, or pushing the straight-laced Heder out of his shell, he is a broken figure, worthy of and capable of great sympathy.
Even Joby recognises his own follies, and it is this almost desperate self-awareness that drives the slight yet intimate narrative. Sometimes couched in forced sentimental moments, including the awkward bonding of Joby and Ellen over music, he is still a genuine construct. Supporting players fare less successfully than Dano. Once an indie star in the making, Jena Malone is relegated to an almost insignificant background role. For poor Jon Heder, his hopelessly clueless lawyer does little to help him out from under the shadow of Napoleon Dynamite.
Following the emotional catharsis that For Ellen does find, Kim seems uncertain as to how to satisfactorily end the film. Instead, she appears to “borrow” heavily from the final scenes for Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), one of the most recognisable codas from the New Hollywood movement. It is a fatal stumble, and one out of step with the deeply intimate voyage of discovery that has come before, leaving us with a bitter taste. Kim has otherwise crafted a wonderful character study, and demonstrates her gift of creating something more than simple stereotypes.
For Ellen debuted at Sundance in January 2012, and Sundance London in April 2012. It will play at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2012.