So Yong Kim has been one of my favorite emerging directors. Over the last six years, she has made three features. The first two, In Between Days and Treeless Mountain, shook off the artificial "mumblecore" tag to reveal an emotionally powerful, carefully expressed cinematic point of view. Her latest, For Ellen, is my least favorite of her efforts, but not because it lacks the same sincerity. It's more because Kim has stretched herself and ventured out into, for her, uncharted terrain, and perhaps just hasn't entirely found her way around as of yet.
Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Ruby Sparks), stars in For Ellen as Joby Taylor, the lead singer in a semi-successful band. As the movie begins, Joby has been driving through the night, having left immediately after a gig, to attend the final mediation of divorce and custody proceedings. Joby has never really been "in the moment" as far as his family is concerned, and so he hasn't realized how far things have deteriorated. His wife's lawyer won't permit direct communication between them, even when they are in the same room, and all previous agreements are null and void. Joby's wife will get everything, including their six-year-old daughter Ellen (first-timer Shaylena Mandigo). As the truth sinks in, Joby is devastated. In an alcoholic haze, he pulls a dirty move, blackmailing his wife into giving him at least one visit with their child.
For Ellen kind of splits neatly into two halves. There is "before Ellen" and "with Ellen." Or, essentially, the half of the movie where Joby is every selfish cliché of a deadbeat rockstar dad, and the half of the movie where he realizes he is every selfish cliché of a deadbeat rockstar dad. As he takes Ellen out for their father/daughter afternoon, there is a quiet thaw. The girl warms up to him, and his illusions that he can easily fix all the damage his neglect has done melt away. The best scenes in Kim's film is when it's just Dano and Mandigo one-on-one. The pair come off as natural and raw in their conversations, with Dano applying his skills to drawing his young co-star out of her shell. I think the process was as good for him as it was for her, since his turn as Joby utterly lacks in affectation. I don't think you could say the same for any other performance in his career. The tricks and quirks and gangly histrionics are gone, replaced by something far more authentic.
While For Ellen certainly doesn't mine any previously unseen territory, what sets it apart is Kim's emotional temperament. As with all of her films, For Ellen is really a string of modest moments. For as powerful as the lessons Joby learns turn out to be, they are delivered with the quietest of whispers. There are no ah-ha's to be had, no grand epiphanies, and even when the father and daughter are having fun, there is nothing cutesy about their interactions. Kim is an expert at maintaining a single mood. In the case of For Ellen, it's the chill of a life set adrift on an ice flow, floating off to an unknown, solitary fate. The interior iciness is matched by the wintery exterior, captured with unadorned accuracy by cinematographer Reed Morano and underscored gently by musician Johann Johannsson.
It's hard to put my finger on why For Ellen doesn't feel as special as So Yong Kim's previous films. Perhaps it's that she has moved away from giving a platform to voices that normally don't get the chance to speak up--young Korean girls both in their home country and abroad--and attempted to portray a "type" we know maybe all too well. There seems to be less of a connection here, both for the filmmaker and for me as an audience member, like we're simply peeking in rather than taking part. Like this were a cover song rather than an original tune. That said, it's still a pretty good rendition of that same ol' song, and well worth seeking out.
English Closed Captioning is provided.