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A mediocre short film, another one of divine power, both featuring a wonderful performance
For Ellen feels like the combination of two short films, both roughly thirty minutes in length, that were each injected with fifteen minutes of filler. The first short film (or act), running more-or-less forty-five minutes long, tells the story of Joby Taylor (Paul Dano), the lead singer of a second-rate rock band, battling for a divorce suit with his wife out of court. This leads to multiple mental breakdowns of Joby, many lawyer meetings discussing settlements and entitlements, and long shots focusing on Joby's often sulky, bitter face in close-up. It's long and tedious. The second short film is predominately centered on Joby and his six-year-old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), who he learns he'll lose entire custody of if he signs the current settlement at hand. He takes her out for a few hours, awkwardly asking her about her likes and dislikes, and simply trying to get to know her personally, before he potentially cuts off any and all communication with her. It's sensitive, extremely well-done material.
Paul Dano is a serious and convincing screen presence, considering his age and how actors usually mature with time. Dano hit the ground running with his first major performance as Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine, a teenager who decided to take a vow of silence until becoming a pilot and then discovered devastating news. His roles have treaded the line of bravery, assuming the role of either a conflicted rocker, a trouble but optimistic teen, and even the bold voice of reason. His Joby here is, in his own way, an anti-hero; we're not very fond of him because of his "deadbeat dad" status, yet we can see his act of reconnecting with his child as an audacious and daring one. Since he is one of the only characters we meet and focus on during the film, a lion's weight of its quality rests on his shoulders. His performance is often a roller-coaster of emotions for the viewer, however, what somewhat waters its quality is the writing, which is ponderous, vague, and largely forced impressionism.
For Ellen falls into the category of an indie film that is smart for not trying to do too much, yet kind of dumb for not doing enough. It plays everything too safe. The long close-ups of Dano, many of them unsteady, wobbly, and victim to a shaky camera, try to provide us with sentimentality and intimacy during traditional scenes which a film like this doesn't really need then. The scenes with Joby and Ellen are much more structured and stable, in terms of camera angles, yet if there's any time they should be unsteady and rather imperfect, it should be then; not at the beginning of the film, when the story is brewing and characters are being born.
The father-daughter dialog between our title character and her father is simply remarkable. So remarkable I wish I could seriously recommend watching the film from the forty-five minute mark till the end. If there's one film that at least gets props for doing one thing completely right and beautifully poetic, it's the naturalistic dialog between Joby and Ellen. It's all about the incoherency and the small details during these sequences. Take note of how many times Joby says "um," or "like," or stutters when asking her a simple question. He doesn't know what to say and what not say. Would you? Could you have a solid conversation with your six-year-old daughter when you never see her and barely know anything about her beyond her fast name? It'd be horrifying and depressing for the both of you. Writer/director So Yong Kim realizes this and completely amplifies what could've been a contrived, tiresome addition to an already plot less film.
Now if only this one small detail or something like it could make the first act work as powerfully well as the second one, we'd have a stronger, more complete picture on our hands. If there's one other thing that bothers me about For Ellen, though, it's the "make it up" ending it attaches on there as a means to informally end the film with the idea of you, the viewer, can decide how the story of the characters will continue after these checkered events.
It's a pity I can't, technically, recommend the entire film. Say this was actually two short films combined into one. The first one would get two stars for being overlong, dry, and rather aimless. The second one would get three and a half stars for being naturalistic, believable, and entirely realistic. By combining them you get two and a half stars. That's about right in my book.
Starring: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, and Shaylena Mandigo. Directed by: So Yong Kim.
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