For Ellen

For Ellen

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Most movies about the rock lifestyle, whether fictional or documentary, focus on the hedonistic, adrenaline-fuelled nowness of life on the road. So Yong Kim’s subtle and moving third feature completely reverses the prism, showing the messy human cost of a lifestyle that can bring out the eternal adolescent in the best of people.

It’s certainly done that to the protagonist, Joby (Paul Dano), a twentysomething indie-metal singer-songwriter, whose creative talents and stage act (on the evidence presented in the film) could charitably be described as mediocre but clearly sees himself as an heir to the stellar hellraisers of yore - determined to, like, burn twice as bright for half as long, dude.

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We first encounter him ploughing his car into a snowbank while attempting to simultaneously drive, light up, throw some rock shapes to a radio track and conduct a mobile phone conversation with his divorce lawyer. He’s on his way to a shambolic meeting with his embittered ex, Claire (Margarita Levieva) and the smalltown equivalents of m’learned friends – where he swiftly realises that if he’d read the documents properly he’d be aware that signing on the dotted line means he forfeits all access to his six-year-old daughter Ellen.

He adjourns the meeting in no uncertain terms. And, despite never having bothered to meet his daughter before, instructs his legal eagle Fred (Jon Heder) that it’s time to secure some paternal rights. But he soon finds out that Claire won’t even speak to him, her lawyer is in no mood to compromise and Fred’s more of a sparrow than an eagle, completely out of his depth against a heavy hitter and really quite keen for Joby to sign and head back on to the road, leaving everyone else in peace.

Joby has other ideas and uses an undisclosed (and very dark) secret from Claire’s past to blackmail her into allowing him one day with Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). After some initial stiffness and tension, the two warm to each other – and Joby begins to wonder if he can bear to limit contact with his daughter to a single visit...

I must admit it took me a while to warm to this film. The directorial palette – frozen Nowheresville, USA, landscapes, overlapping dialogue and cinema verite camera angles - seemed over-familiar from a thousand low-key indie relationship dramas. And Dano’s performance seemed a somewhat self-conscious ‘star turn’, his character a whinging, petulant manchild to whom my initial reaction was; put him in the army and never let him attempt anything resembling responsible parenting.

But as Yong Kim explores her characters a more nuanced, rewarding movie emerges. Dano dials back on the sweary stoner shtick as Joby finds that spending a day enjoying the simple pleasures (and occasional moments of blind panic) that fatherhood entails bring out a calmness and sense of fun in him.

Instead of a becoming a manipulative, tear-jerking Gen X version of Kramer Vs Kramer, the film evolves into a poignant, understated essay in lives going wrong through no malice on anyone’s part. And a portrait of a man gradually realising that, before he’s even grown up himself, he may have lost the precious gift of being at the centre of a child’s life – in return for something that could well turn out to be very short-lived.

Sundance darling Yong Kim builds very successfully on the promise of her first two features, In Between Days and Treeless Mountain, moving outside her hitherto favoured setting of the Korean-American community to create a broader range of characters and, as she’s said in interviews, dig deeper into her own relationship with her father. Not all of the supporting cast truly spring to life, it must be said. In particular, Heder - a natural comic talent in films as diverse as Napoleon Dynamite and Blades Of Glory - never seems to be given much to do and his character remains a clichéd nerdy mummy’s boy, in awe of Joby’s outré lifestyle.

But Dano - perhaps best known so far for his breakout role in the ensemble classic Little Miss Sunshine and his remarkable dual supporting turn as the twins in There Will Be Blood – proves he can carry a film almost single-handedly, bringing depth and sympathy to a character I suspect a high proportion of audiences will start out wanting to strangle. And Mandigo is a revelation - utterly natural and accomplished, capturing Ellen’s combination of charming innocence and the slightly enclosed self-reliance of an only child in a single-parent household.

A somewhat rushed coda complicates matters unnecessarily and the ending was (I thought) a bit of a steal from Five Easy Pieces. But this is well worth a look if you thought all rock movies were the same – or if you want to see a top-notch performance by one of America’s best young actors, and a director with bags of potential flexing her muscles.

Reviewed on: 14 Feb 2013
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A rock musician in the middle of an acrimonious divorce tries to gain access to his six-year-old daughter.
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Director: So Yong Kim

Writer: So Yong Kim

Starring: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Shay Mandigo

Year: 2012

Runtime: 94 minutes

Country: US


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