Writer-director So Young Kim’s slow-paced indie film For Ellen centres around a struggling rock musician, Joby Taylor (Paul Dano), and his relationship (or more accurately, his lack thereof) with his daughter Ellen. The film’s title is a bit misleading in that way – actually, Joby hardly knows his daughter Ellen, and knows even less about what he’d do for her.
We first encounter him fecklessly driving through the snow to a remote town, taking a break from his rock career to finalise legal issues with his ex. The lawyers expect him to sign a settlement without much fuss; everyone except him seems to know the score. He’s been absent and his ex wants it all finished – she’ll only speak to him through her lawyer. Joby expected half of everything – the house and joint custody – but the settlement is for half the house and no rights to his daughter. We watch him caught out as he drags his feet, trying to understand what he’s signing away.
Joby’s visage, tightly framed, dominates the screen throughout the film, but Dano’s baby face is associated with very different characters from the one he plays here. His roles playing thoughtful, sometimes broken men in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Meek’s Cutoff perfectly suited his serious intensity and otherworldly look. In contrast, Joby is a mere shell of a man, a quietly passive, stammering and undemonstrative figure, meant to be a kind of deadbeat-dad-everyman.
Though Dano’s not a natural-looking gritty rocker – he’s got emo stamped all over him – he deserves credit for a committed performance out of his comfort zone. His unfocused moping, awkward sullenness, chipped nail polish, penchant for checking his hair all create a recognisable character – just not a terribly entertaining or relatable one that evokes much pathos. The best scenes show Joby struggling to connect with his young daughter, which are realistic and charming, but all too brief.
In order to be gripped by the story, we’d have to care about Joby on his own, and that’s not made easy. Kim’s script provides few details about Joby’s backstory and his relationship with his ex – no flashbacks, just a few broad references – which doesn’t help Dano. It’s clear that Joby is limited and not particularly deep by design, but unfortunately, the film feels just as confined and shallow as its main character.
In addition to featuring muted characters and sparse dialogue, even the film’s locations are barren and character-less. There’s no local colour to enliven the scenes – in fact, there’s no clear sense of time or place. The Coen Brothers utilised the snowy wasteland setting brilliantly in Fargo, imbuing the landscape with significance and even humour. But in For Ellen, the snow just seems to signify blankness. Again, perhaps this is meant to bolster Joby’s own emptiness, or make his story more universal, to represent all deadbeat dads – but the result is monotony. If the film had a stronger style, either in the rhythms of the dialogue or visually, that could have filled in some of the blanks; but Joby’s story is mostly shot like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, with little scope for narrative expansion.
A relative bright spot is Joby’s lawyer, played by Jon Heder of Napoleon Dynamite fame, also against type; though he’s a deadpan character, he still has more vibrancy than anyone else in the film, save for Ellen herself (Shaylena Mandingo) during her more carefree moments. Those two provide the only injections of energy and purpose in an otherwise painfully quiet, sluggish film. For Ellen presents a minimalist, mundane sketch of Joby rather than a finished, evocative portrait – it leaves you feeling like you were owed more for your time.
For Ellen is released in cinemas on Friday 15 February.