A somewhat pedestrian and air-quote small story of blue-collar despair, familial fracturing and choking uncertainty, writer-director So Yong Kim’s mastery of tone and elements turns For Ellen into a thing of tender, forlorn beauty. Anchored by a strong performance from Paul Dano, this wonderfully wrought character study is a spare, intimate treat that should find welcome reception with arthouse audiences.
Struggling singer-songwriter Joby Taylor (Dano, quite good) takes a break from life on the road — and rather purposefully leaves behind girlfriend Susan (Jena Malone) — to come in and try to amicably settle his impending divorce from wife Claire (Margarita Levieva), whom he has not seen in a very long time. Joby’s willing and ready to sign off on the house and other assets, but is distraught to learn that Claire does not want him to have any visitation rights to Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), their six-year-old daughter that he long ago abandoned. As his buttoned-up lawyer, Fred (a bearded Jon Heder), tries to negotiate matters, Joby reflects on whether he can really walk away from Ellen for good.
Korean-American Kim, born in Pusan, South Korea but raised in Los Angeles, has a deft touch with alienation expressed through environmental chilliness. This was especially true of In Between Days, her semi-autobiographical feature debut, which in 2006 picked up a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and it remains true here. Working with cinematographer Reed Morano, Kim crafts a movie whose haunting, beautifully captured wintry landscapes are a physical stand-in for the roiling, distressed and self-destructive inner feelings of Joby.
Kim’s works also frequently touch upon issues of parental separation and abandonment, and it’s her comfort level and communicative skill with this theme that make Joby’s eventual visit with Ellen so arresting. Spanning more than 25 minutes, this sequence between Dano and the young Mandigo is masterfully orchestrated — almost a short film unto itself, full of carefully dosed regret, pain, ambivalence. Plenty of other films, and filmmakers, could (and have) tread the same terrain Kim does in For Ellen. She makes it personal, however, which — combined with her shrewd powers of observance, reservoir of passion for her characters, and refusal to indulge in a pat or “correct” conclusion — make her movie something special.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, For Ellen comes to DVD presented in a nice 1.78:1 widescreen transfer, alongside a 5.1 Dolby digital audio track that more than adequately handles the movie’s spare aural design. The only bonus feature, unfortunately, is a very short, three-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that seems almost as concerned as touting the sponsor of the movie’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere, American Express, as imparting much of consequence about Kim’s work. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here; if brick-and-mortar retailers are still your thing, by all means do that. B+ (Movie) D+ (Disc)