There’s a revealing moment in the middle of For Ellen in which aspiring rock star Joby Taylor (Paul Dano) is in a bar and after a few too many drinks puts Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” on the jukebox. It’s a great song to dance to if you’re a stripper, but Joby is, of course, no stripper. His lawyer, Fred Butler (Jon Heder), at first watches him with great interest as Joby sways to the beat — up to this point it seems Fred has a romantic crush on his client, or, at the very least, is starstruck because he’s representing a rock singer and wants to impress him. But Fred’s smile soon turns as Joby’s swaying becomes an embarrassing display ending with Joby slithering on the ground. It’s at this moment that Fred realizes that Joby isn’t as cool as he thought he was, and the audience realizes that for all his tattoos, rings, and painted fingernails, Joby isn’t and will never be a rock star.
Part of that comes from casting Paul Dano to play Joby, a never-was rock singer who faces giving up custody of Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), the daughter he never really knew, to his ex-wife Claire (Margarita Levieva) in order to get his money out of the house they once shared. Dano is a talented actor — after all, he held his own against no less than Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood — but he’s no rock star, which makes him a great choice for this role. Joby is whiny and image obsessed — there are multiple moments when he’s in the bathroom primping himself and his pathetic excuse for a beard in the mirror — neither of which are attributes that a true rock star, like Keith Richards, really have. He’s obviously conflicted about signing away his paternity rights, though he’s clearly irresponsible in just about all aspects of his life.
There are a number of strengths to this film, including Dano’s performance. It was also nice to see Heder in a dramatic role, but it’s still hard to shake Napoleon Dynamite out of one’s head when watching him (and even more so when hearing him speak). The setting — which is never really identified — is cold and desolate, the perfect reflection of Joby’s emotional state and internal emptiness. The story is smart, with writer/director So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain) drawing power from the complex emotional choices Joby has to make.
Where For Ellen goes wrong is the fact that this story, which would make an effective 30/40 minute short, is stretched to 94 minutes. There are way too many scenes of Joby starring down at the ground while he smokes a cigarette or sitting deep in thought. Those moments scream for some kind of cutaway vignettes — perhaps scenes of Joby on stage, or flashback sequences of his life with Claire showing the good times and the bad times — but we don’t get anything except shots of a pensive Dano. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wonderful short story “Babylon Revisited” tells a similar story about a father and his desire for custody of his daughter in less than 7500 words, so Kim should have either wrapped this up sooner or added more to the narrative. Because as talented of an actor as Dano is, he’s not charismatic enough to warrant starring at him deep in thought for an hour and a half. While the audience can easily make accurate assumptions about Joby’s past (which means they flashback scenes aren’t really necessary), flashbacks would be a hell of a lot more interesting that starring at Dano looking contemplative.
Along those same lines, while the young actress who plays Ellen is wonderful, her character is a bit too smart and aware for someone her age and it’s painfully obvious that her lines are scripted — not because of the way she says them (she’s very talented for her age), but because they hit the exact emotional points that Kim needs her to hit. While I obviously know children can be smarter than expected, there’s so much more power in the situations that happen between Joby and his daughter (like the heart-wrenching and perfectly shot sequence in which it appears that he lost her in the mall) than in their lengthy dialogue sequences.
For Ellen is a weak film from a strong concept: it just doesn’t have enough story to warrant a feature-length film. That’s a problem that could have been easily fixed with a bit more scripting, but it appears Kim wasn’t aware of this problem until shooting the film and tried to flesh out the film with lengthy sequences that make the film more emotionally flat than it should be. A great editor could have chopped this film into a moving short film, but with Kim serving as co-editor herself that clearly didn’t happen.
Rating: 5/10 (Great performances can’t fix this custody drama that is short on story).
For Ellen opens in the following theaters:
New York September 5 Film Forum
Seattle September 21 SIFF Cinema
Denver September 28 Colfax 3
Chicago September 28 Gene Siskel Film Center
The film is also available on VOD nationwide on September 19.