Looking to reconcile her feelings about being a successful parent, wife and filmmaker with her child turning two, writer/director So Yong Kim decided to delve into the all too common reality that some only can do so when it is too late. Taking from her own experience growing up fatherless—only having ever seen him once at the age of five—her film For Ellen finds itself attempting to not decipher why someone would leave, but instead show the moment when ego and selfishness melt away to leave only the sorrow of the realization that returning is impossible. To have missed so much without but a second glance, the pain of finally discovering that love of a child can do nothing besides rip your heart out as you accept the fault that losing it was all your own.
An intriguing character study, the move to her father’s point of view couldn’t have been easy considering whatever emotional scars remained courtesy of abandonment, anger, or depression at his absence. Kim somehow finds the compassion to accept it all can be too much for some, the responsibility necessary to sacrifice one’s desires for that of his offspring unfathomable when his dreams and aspirations are within reach. This is the kind of background information that really puts an interesting spin on what occurs onscreen because you have to wonder about her process to stop hating him for leaving and instead attempt to understand why. There’s probably more than a little of herself in the matter-of-fact, guarded performance by newcomer Shaylena Mandigo‘s Ellen, but it’s Paul Dano‘s Joby Taylor who becomes the true tragic character—her own trepidation as a parent inferring on his actions and revelations.
And it’s a performance that should be seen because Dano really delves deep into the motivations of a wannabe rock star coming to the realization he not only failed at the fantasy life of celebrity but also as a loving husband and father. We see him constantly attempting to diffuse situations with unwarranted humor because he himself can’t deal with the pressure, the gravity of what his divorce means lost on him until everything crumbles to dust. So trapped in his own head with the need to scrounge up cash for the band, he has become oblivious to the fact his soon-to-be ex (Margarita Levieva) only agreed to give half of their house if he relinquished custody of their daughter. Whatever feelings of ownership he may feel he has over Ellen, that’s all it is until he finds there is nothing else in his life of worth.
It’s a sad and tragic fall that can never earn the idyllic rise of forgiveness a more mainstream work would easily tack on and the climactic conversation between father and daughter worked towards does make the wait worth it. There is a palpable awkwardness on behalf of both Dano and Mandigo as neither knows exactly what to do. She wants to be polite and not call him out for leaving while he wants to buy her love and avoid the fact that he did. Juxtaposing two conversations—one full of artifice and manufactured facade while the other strips bare to show emotion barely held in check beneath—shows how harsh and necessary the acceptance of their situation is above any hope for reconciliation. He is on the outside of her life looking in longingly, no one to blame but himself.
Yet while this dynamic is so powerfully charged and exciting in its quiet silence of two actors weighing each other up without the need for forgiveness since what happened can’t be undone, the rest of the film ends up slow, unnecessary filler. I’m sure Kim had reasons to bring Joby’s girlfriend Susan (Jena Malone) and his socially inept lawyer Fred Butler (Jon Heder) to show the life he may no longer want and the hardheaded ego that got him in this situation respectively, but it’s all white noise we must wade through until he and Ellen can meet. The scenes with Dano and Heder appear to want to infuse comic relief but only end up making us uncomfortable by the odd situations presented from the latter’s need to befriend his client as though in apology for losing custody.
The performances are great—Heder has never been so nuanced and Levieva is perfectly cold in refusing to let Dano in to change her mind—but everything not dealing with father, mother, and daughter is tedious. Rather than being necessary to help understand Joby’s trajectory, the many static shots of reflection are just a way to showcase Dano’s acting prowess. It’s a steady thaw into self-pity that finally makes its way to understanding whatever decision he makes must be done with his Ellen’s best interests at heart instead of his own, but I wonder if the emotional punch would have been stronger if the film were a short focusing solely on their reunion. I feel For Ellen wants to be Paris, Texas yet can never reach the pathos Wim Wenders put onscreen because the build-up never does more than repeat itself to pad runtime.
So, while moments shine bright enough to make the film worthwhile, the whole cannot live up to the actors’ work. I found myself caring more about their craft as performers than the character itself, keeping me at a distance from their plight and uncaring towards how it would all turn out. And while the way in which the Taylor family is left could not have been done better, I do wonder about the ending’s hope to show growth and optimism for a future where Joby won’t repeat previous mistakes. Methodically paced throughout, what happens is unconvincing because it occurs so quickly and with a character we hadn’t seen before. Excise Malone’s Susan so his decision is for Ellen’s sake and it may have been more genuine. As it is, moving forward to a new chapter in life comes off as selfish as his ruining of this one.
For Ellen opens in select cities starting September 5th and is available on VOD September 19th.