Bonds between children and their parents have been significantly prominent in the blossoming career of South Korean director So Yong Kim. Her first two films both contained young female characters with absentee fathers and her latest offering is no different. With For Ellen (2012), however, the setting is the United States and it is not the daughter that is the subject of Kim’s gently observant lens, but the absconding parent fearlessly brought to life by indie darling Paul Dano. Joby Taylor (Dano) is a the lead singer of an ailing rock band who has never really even acknowledged that he has a daughter.
Joby arrives in snowy upstate New York with dark shades, leather jacket, lank hair and a wisp of a goatee. He’s there to sign divorce papers ending his marriage to estranged wife, Claire (Margarita Levieva). His inexperienced lawyer (a comically straight-laced Jon Heder) informs him that in finalising their separation, Joby will relinquish any legal right to their daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). Despite having never professed an interest in her before, the impending impossibility of a relationship with his daughter inspires some serious soul searching.
Kim continues to embrace the same kind of glacial pacing and unobtrusive visuals for which she has become known. Though detractors have sited a lack of narrative thrust as problematic, Kim has utilised the style to great effect in her previous films. Regrettably, in the opening half an hour of For Ellen, it seems to work considerably less well. The long takes and wide angles lend a naturally objective quality and in combination with a particularly ambiguous central character, a listless air descends. Luckily, Dano’s performance provides enough incentive to stick with it and the character of Joby is a nuanced and authentic look at a naive musician wedded (for better or worse) to his art.
Any patience that audience members did require is thoroughly rewarded when Ellen herself makes her entrance. Their time together may be brief, and flits been candid and awkward conversation, but provides a touching and sincere look at their first meeting. Joby is placed firmly out of his comfort zone and Dano is more than up to the challenge, as is newcomer Mandigo.
Its abrupt and enigmatic conclusion may cause some consternation, but then For Ellen is hardly a film that panders to convention. It will undoubtedly not be to the tastes of all cinema-goers but it is a poignant and honest look at a difficult situation, anchored by a stand-out performance from Dano.