Movie Review: For Ellen
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: September 5, 2012
Directed by: So Yong Kim
Stars: 2 out of 5
A family drama can only succeed if it has a strong storyline, and "For Ellen" has that in spades. The film introduces the viewer to Joby Taylor (Paul Dano, "Little Miss Sunshine"). Joby makes a living with his hard-rock band, but that same band is on the verge of breaking up. The early scenes of Joby in Chicago set the tone for the character and the rest of the film. He barely makes a living as a musician, has no one whom he truly cares about, and does as little as possible to get by.
His soon-to-be-ex-wife Claire (Margarita Levieva, "The Lincoln Lawyer") hits him with the news that he needs to sign their court papers. Joby makes the long drive to meet her, only to discover a problem with his daughter. Ellen (newcomer Shaylena Mandigo) lives with her mother but has a deep fondness for the father she doesn't know.
When he meets with his lawyer Fred (Jon Heder, "Napoleon Dynamite"), he discovers that the man sided with his wife, giving the woman full custody of their daughter. Though he rarely spent any time with the young girl before, he finds himself obsessed with having her in his life. "For Ellen" details the afternoons that father and daughter share together as Joby decides what to do next.
Some of the early reviews of the film focused on the slow pacing, which sometimes makes the film drag. Director So Yong Kim did this deliberately, wanting viewers to feel like the story drags. This helps the viewer see the story through the eyes of Joby, but it doesn't always work. There are successful moments in the film, but the pacing issue sometimes makes the film feel much longer.
Pacing is less of an issue than the characters are. Viewers want to relate to the main character in a family drama, and Joby is not the type of character that people like. Director So Kim spends far too much of the film focusing on the issues that made Joby the man he is in the film. She highlights his alcoholism, which kept him more interested in his next drink than his family. Even after he discovers that his wife wants full custody of his daughter, he turns to the bottle. So Kim waits too long for any type of redemption, and the redemption that does come feels forced.
So Kim wants viewers to root for Joby, but Claire comes across as the more sympathetic character. When the film flashes back to moments they shared, viewers will feel their hearts breaking for her. The director tries to tone things down and make Claire less likable, but she still comes across as the better character.
Dano is a fantastic comedic actor, but he sometimes struggles in his role as a father. He seems to think that he can convey any emotion by simply putting a brooding look on his face or staring off into space. Mandigo upstages him in many of the scenes they share together. Her talent oozes off the screen, especially as her character struggles to find a place in her heart for her absent father.
Heder adds another positive note to the film. The actor is most comfortable with comedic roles, and he adds the only humor to this otherwise bleak film. Portraying a man who cannot stay away from his mother, he creates a character that viewers will find entertaining. It's left up in the air whether he truly is a bumbling lawyer who forgot to ask for shared custody or if he wanted the mother to gain custody because of the relationship he shared with his own mother.
Knowing the back story of the film might help some viewers relate to it better. So Kim admits that her own father disappeared when she was a child, leaving her to wonder what he did when he left. "For Ellen" is her way of telling her own story and filling in the details about her father's life.
Some viewers might have a difficult time with the film when it begins explaining the relationship between Joby and Ellen. Joby and Claire had a short fling, which resulted in a child. Though he saw her a few times as a baby, he had no interest in spending any real time with his child. It doesn't help when Susan (Jena Malone, "Into the Wild") pops up as a groupie with a crush on Joby. He spends more time focusing on her and their potential relationship than he does his own child.
"For Ellen" isn't the kind of heartfelt movie with a cheerful ending. Though the film is often bleak, that bleakness adds to the story. Those willing to stick through it will find a satisfying ending that wraps up each character's story in an unexpected way.