When a director sets out to tell a story involving an estranged father and daughter, there is always the danger of diving head first into nauseatingly saccharine territory where, by the end, everything is tied together with neat cliché. Tropes of these stories are all too familiar – redemption, forgiveness, self-discovery – and consequently the director is faced with the challenge of creating an original, dramatic piece, rather than a stilted story that has been done many times before.
Failed rock star Joby (Paul Dano) finally reaches an agreement with his hostile wife with regards to their divorce. On signing the proceedings, Joby discovers he is forfeiting his custodial rights of his daughter, Ellen, and communication between the two will cease. His well-mannered lawyer (Jon Heder) is unable to reverse the situation, and Joby is overcome with despair. He resolves to strengthen the non-existent relationship between himself and his daughter by “doing the stuff that fathers usually do”.
Dano’s turn as the jaded and failed musician is the best he has given in his career, creating a forceful presence with a highly sympathetic character. His performance is structured meticulously, with all the skill and bravura necessary to portray someone who is lost and desperate. Between phone calls from his lawyer and reading “Top 10 Fun Things to Do with Kids” guides, here is someone trying to put the pieces of his life back together without any notion of how to do so. Dano captures all of this with a quiet dignity.
Hollywood has recently opened its arms to South Korean directors, with new releases such as The Last Stand (Kim JiWoon) and Stoker (Park Chan Wook), and So Yong Kim’s transition to Hollywood doesn’t feel misplaced in the landscape of American cinema. Nonetheless, the film is hampered by a vague and awkward story that often flounders. There are issues with pace, and the conclusion feels rushed and unsatisfying. By the end, you can’t shake the feeling that the potentially potent emotional power of the film has been diluted.
As a finished product, For Ellen just feels unripe, clumsy and somewhat underwhelming. It is still a quietly moving piece, mainly due to the work of Dano and the supporting cast, but sadly it’s just a good film that was capable of being much better.
For Ellen was released nationwide on 15th February 2013.
Watch the trailer for For Ellen here