Although we get little information about the current state of his career or his life, it is apparent that Joby Taylor, the sad and lonely hero of “For Ellen”, is a man stuck in the dead end. He looks blank, confused, and crestfallen all the time, and sometimes his mind seems to be wondering somewhere out of the room when he talks with others. He does not look so old, but he looks as if he barely exists just because of his living body, and, except his less-than-ideal career, he seems to have no purpose or aim in his life – until now.
Joby, well played by Paul Dano in one of his exceptional performances, is a heavy metal rocker who comes(or is drifted, shall we say) to a cold, snowy, and desolate winter town in the New York state for settling several matters on his imminent divorce. Not long after he manages to arrive in the town, he has a meeting with his ex-wife Claire(Margarita Levieva) and the lawyers on the both sides, and it does not go well for him because he somehow neglected several crucial details during the settlement process. The ownership of their house will be equally divided and that is fine with him, but, in case of their daughter Ellen, the sole custody will go to Claire and he does not like it at all.
Jody is perplexed by this situation, for he is determined to be closer to Ellen although he rarely saw her after her birth. He is frustrated to know that there is no possibility that Claire will change her mind, and he is further depressed to know that he will have to sign the divorce paper no matter how much he tries to see his daughter. We later see him alone in his shabby motel room, and he looks more desolate than before as a man feeling lost more than ever.
As we feel pity about his miserable state, we also see how pathetic he is through Dano’s quietly sad performance. It looks like he has been drifted around here and there for many rough years of his life, and he now sees something to hold on in his life through his daughter, but it is very clear to us that he cannot possibly be a good dad despite his sincerity. Looking detached and isolated with the appearance of your average rocker and many tattoos on his body, he always has the difficulty with communicating with others, and we can feel the emotional barrier between him and them even when he really struggles to be nice and sincere.
We observe this problem of his through the series of his awkward interactions with the other characters around him. His lawyer Fred Butler(Jon Heder) invites Joby to his home for dinner probably because he feels sorry for his client, but Joby’s mood is not lightened up much, and Fred’s mother does not help a lot as she keeps asking Joby about his life. Fred and Joby later get out of the house and then spend some time together at a local bar, but it only deepens Joby’s melancholy despite Fred’s genuine concern to his client.
Joby eventually gets a chance to meet his daughter through a rather mean tactic, but that only confirms how much he is unprepared and immature to be her father. Even though she is very young, Ellen(Shaylena Mandigo) sees their situation far more clearly than her dad, so he rather looks like a big baby compared to her as they spend their small precious private time together. She points out to her dad that his gift is the same doll she already has, so she virtually leads him around a local shopping mall for finding what she wants instead. She wants to go bowling, and he takes her to a local bowling alley because there is nothing else he can think of. They have a fairly good time together on the whole, but they eventually arrive at the moment where Ellen reminds his dad of the reality in a clear, unadorned way which feels both natural and precise for the story.
The movie is directed by So Young Kim, a Korean American director who previously made a haunting film “Treeless Mountain”(2008) in South Korea as her second feature film. That movie was a sad but ultimately hopeful story about two young sisters waiting for their mother who left them to their relatives, and I liked a lot because of its several wonderful realistic moments resonating with my own childhood memories. Although I had far sunnier childhood with my little brother during the era depicted in the movie, I could identify with how the kids in the movie spent their free time in their neighborhood, and that was why I found that film so special.
While “For Ellen” can be regarded as the opposite of “Treeless Mountain” considering its plot, its story is presented through a similar naturalistic approach. Its handheld camera patiently observes the characters, and its somber atmosphere feels real and authentic with the cold weather surrounding the characters, and the director So Young Kim also draws a bunch of good realistic performances from her small cast. Paul Dano, who also participated in the production of the movie, never hesitates to look unlikable and incorrigible in front of the camera, and, under Kim’s competent direction, he and child actress Shaylena Mandigo hit every right note during their emotionally tentative scenes.
“For Ellen” is a depressing but heartfelt character study thanks to its direction and performances. The movie particularly reminds me of Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place”(2011), another sad film about a burned-out rocker. The hero of that film has also been stuck in his own dead end while hiding behind his persona as a rocker, but we gradually feel someone slowly being awakened through a sudden incident coming into his static life. In case of Joby, he desperately yearns in his inert mind for such a chance, and he wants to believe he finds it right in front of him, but the problems are 1) he is still not ready for it and 2) he may already be beyond repair because of the hopeless nothingness behind his miserable appearance. What a wretched guy he is.