Regardless of others involved, a new film starring US indie darling Paul Dano will always be an intriguing prospect. Having broken onto the scene with fine performances in Sundance favourite Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s towering Oscar-winner There Will Be Blood (2007), Dano has since retracted into the background with a number of ho-hum supporting roles. Returning to stage centre in So Yong Kim’s debut feature For Ellen, Dano certainly re-affirms his status as a watchable screen presence – sadly, the rest of the film can’t match up to his considerable talents.
After an overnight long-distance drive, Joby (Dano) has a special meeting – with lawyers and his ex-wife Claire (Margarita Levieva). A struggling musician with the prerequisite tattoos, slimy hair, goatee, and his head firmly floating in the clouds, Joby hasn’t been around to be a dad. Now is his last chance to fight for shared custody of his daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo).
A sparse, under-written screenplay leaves little for Dano to do in For Ellen’s central role, leading to a number of trite, inconsequential meetings with supporting characters, all some way linked to his quest to see his titular daughter. In one laborious scene, Joby and his emotionally-stunted legal representative Butler (Jon Heder) head to a bar following an equally dull, uncomfortable dinner. Butler drinks little whilst Joby busies himself with shots, cigarettes and the bar’s jukebox, yet as the two depart we realise that no new ground has been trodden between the two. This is just one example of the high level of redundancy on display in Kim’s inaugural effort, which frustrates at almost every turn.
Joby’s incessant drinking, chain-smoking and volatile temper (in his first on-screen meeting with ex-wife Claire, he aggressively degrades her as a “cunt”) beggars the question as to just why we, as an audience, should care if he ever sees Ellen. Like so many young fathers, Joby is either too immature or emotionally unstable to be a competent, caring father, no matter how touching his eventually meeting with Ellen transpires to be.
Even at this crucial crossroads in the narrative, our protagonist visibly strains to conceal his frustration at his daughter’s understandably unresponsive demeanour. Whilst For Ellen shows moments of true potential, Kim falls some way short of delivering a memorable first feature, despite the best efforts of Dano and co. For now at least, this is one debut destined for the American indie also-ran pile.
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