Unrated, 3 stars
There is perhaps no more potent topic in family dramas on screen, than the conflict between being an adequate parent and a self-fulfilling person too. And Paul Dano as a damaged rock musician facing the complete loss of custody of a child he has barely known in For Ellen, is nothing less than an audience reminder of the depth of character, passion and contemplation so often missing from the fast paced, all action and no talk tempo of most movies today.
Written and directed by South Korean born So Yong Kim (The Exploding Girl, Treeless Mountain), For Ellen is all the more remarkable as the work of a female filmmaker burrowing into the nearly destroyed male soul of her anguished protagonist. Though she has indicated in interviews that the story is based on her own troubled memories – or lack of them – of an absentee father.
Dano is Joby in For Ellen, a Chicago aspiring rock performer who has almost but never quite made it as a star. Departing abruptly from Chicago, Joby is headed for a distant wintry suburb where he has agreed to sign divorce papers filed by his long estranged, angry wife Claire (Margarita Levieva. Because he presumably believes there’s money to be had by the concurrent sale of the home (though this is never quite made clear in a rather sketchy back story).
But when Joby arrives at the arranged meeting – where Claire refuses to speak to him and indicates that she will communicate with him solely through her lawyer – it is quickly made apparent that the main bargaining chip on the table is not the home, but rather the entire loss of custody of his six year old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). And though Joby has only known the child briefly in infancy, the shocking finality of his loss of any possible identity as a parent immediately resets his priorities in a life, now suddenly torn between fatherhood and the long frustrating grasp at fame. Or maybe not.
And finding himself in an irreversible situation where he can either cooperate or face a drawn out court case that he’s advised he will lose anyway as a negligent father, Joby agrees to sign the divorce papers relinquishing custody. But only if he can spend one day visiting alone with a daughter he barely remembers.
And it is the sensitively crafted, difficult struggle of father and daughter to connect with one another, that forms the tender and awkward anchor of this story. In no small part exquisitely conveyed by Dano and Mandigo through the expression of awkward, emotions and raw truth – or the masking of truth – both connecting and alienating father and daughter.
Which – despite the dramatically marginal appearance of Jena Malone as an adoring flavor of the month groupie long nursing a burdensome love jones for the far more irritated than ecstatic musician – is the real romance here. And that forms the delicately nuanced unusual love story that is the heart of this movie.