The brilliant Paul Dano makes the slow moving film fly by, but even he can only carry the film so far with so little.
So Young Kim has placed a young child at the heart of the story for her second consecutive film. In her previous film (Treeless Mountain) two young South Korean sisters who were abandoned by their mother, in For Ellen a young child was never cared for by her father to begin with. While the focus of For Ellen is around a directionless rockstar that never quite made it, the realization of losing his child leads to his long over-due first selfless triumph.
After spinning his car off an empty winter road, Joby Taylor (Paul Dano) must wait for a tow truck to come to his rescue before he can make it some appointment he is late for. This marks only the beginning of Joby’s problems at the moment. Not only is his career in jeopardy after an argument with a fellow band member, but this long-haired leather jacket wearing rocker has even more issues to worry about. They are revealed when he eventually reaches his appointment, a lawyer indicates that his wife wants to divorce him and take custody of their young six-year-old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo).
In the settlement agreement, it states that he would receive half of the house in the exchange of forfeiting custody of his child. But possession of the house means little to him compared to losing the ability to see the daughter, which he admits he rarely ever saw. He begs his lawyer (Jon Heder) to help him come up with a way to retain custody, but there is little that can be done.
Everything that is shown of Joby suggests that he would not make a very good father figure. He wakes up each morning with a massive hangover from the night before and seems to care more about his image (despite having an unkempt heavy metal rocker look) than anything else. But in a weird twist of irony, it is not until the threat of losing his child that he shows any interest in her. You would like to think that everything that is happening to him would serve as a wakeup call, and in a way it does. He realizes his flaws but whether or not he is able to fix them remains a mystery.
There will not be many who will argue that Paul Dano is nothing but spectacular in For Ellen. In fact, it is Dano who must carry the film’s bleak script on his back, which the film seems content with doing. He is in nearly every frame of the film, usually sinking further and further into depression as everything around him seems to be disappearing. His character is not a very likeable one, but thanks to Dano it is one that you find yourself caring about.
Aside from Dano’s performance, the other bright spot of the film is the beautiful cinematography. The entire film takes place in a rural town that seems inhabited by anyone, the roads are icy and empty and sky is never bright. This desolate winter landscape featured in For Ellen serves as a worthy backdrop to how Joby’s character must feel; lonely, cold, and depressed.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is everyone else who comes onto the screen, though it is not their performances that are problematic, it is their characters. Ellen is played well by the young actress but seems far too aware of the situation, often knowing more about what is going on than Joby, and certainly acts more mature. It was welcoming to see Jon Heder in a more serious role than he has been in previously but his character never is given the chance to truly develop. A subplot featuring Heder forcefully works its way in from the very beginning but quickly fades and subsequently disappears just as fast.
For Ellen could have hit more emotional notes if the script was not so underdeveloped, leaving everyone involved grasping for something to cling to but coming up empty handed. The brilliant Dano makes the slow moving film fly by, but even he can only carry the film so far with so little. Unfortunately, For Ellen is as flawed as much as the characters found within it.