In For Ellen, Paul Dano stars as Joby Taylor. Joby’s a hard-working lead singer for a struggling rock group. Fights with his bandmates and issues with labels keep his work life stressful but it’s clear that music is his passion and top priority. This is all and fine except for the fact that Joby’s married to a woman named Claire (Levieva) and they have a six-year-old daughter named Ellen (Mandingo). He hasn’t been around at all, putting his music first, and the movie begins with the rocker driving long-distance to sign their divorce papers. Claire’s met a new guy, who seems to be the complete opposite of her soon-to-be ex, and Ellen’s taken to calling him “dad.” And while you’d expect getting half of house that he didn’t help pay for would be a dream come true for someone scraping from gig to gig, the clause that states that Joby will have to give up custody of Ellen causes him to hold up the proceedings while he rethinks things.
Director So Yong Kim’s third feature film is a slowly paced character study filled with long static shots of Dano and the landscapes surrounding him. Dano carries the film on his shoulders and gets little help from the cinematography and editing. But he does help from Shaylena Mandino, the adorable, talented actress who plays his daughter. The scenes that she shares with Dano are by far the best. The crux of the film rests in the short visit that Joby and Ellen share at the local mall and bowling alley. He speaks to her almost like she’s a tiny forest animal that he’s afraid of scaring away. And her soft-spoken demeanor compliments Joby’s introverted personality. But his awkwardness never becomes over-the-top and it’s this element of Dano’s performance that makes it stand out.
In fact, there were many opportunities for this film to take expected, clichéd turns but Kim’s taste level is strong enough to avoid them each and every time. In one scene towards the end of the film, Dano sneaks into Ellen’s bedroom through her window so that Claire won’t know he’s speaking to her. A lesser film would have had Claire enter the room, blow up at Joby, and escalate the drama in a much cheaper way. But here, the scene plays with the father and daughter discussing their issues honestly and straightforward until the emotions rise like a slow boil. It’s a fantastic scene. Overall, there are a number of fantastic scenes dropped into what is an overly long and drab narrative.