For Ellen: Sundance Film Review

For Ellen

U.S. Dramatic Competition

Characters struggle to connect in this slow-paced low-budget drama.

Characters struggle to connect in this slow-paced low-budget drama starring Paul Dano, Jon Heder and Jena Malone.

PARK CITY — With her third film (and third Sundance entry), writer-director So Yong Kim delivers another deliberate -- and deliberately paced -- study of a flawed, struggling character. Her previous projects, distributed by Kino International and Oscilloscope Pictures, have demonstrated that there’s a market for what might be described as “slow cinema,” so a pick-up and modest release appear likely.

Joby Taylor (Paul Dano), a scruffy, failing musician whose hard-rock band is on the verge disintegrating, leaves Chicago on a road trip to sign an out-of-court divorce settlement with his estranged wife Claire (Margarita Levieva). Joby soon discovers that his lawyer (Jon Heder), an ineffectual mama’s boy, has failed to secure him any parental rights and that the agreement will force him to entirely forfeit custody of his six-year-old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), who is already living with her mother.

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Suddenly concerned about losing access to the child he’s never bothered to really acknowledge, Joby is torn by conflicted feelings, but his innate inarticulateness and taste for booze keep getting in the way of any resolution. So he requests a visit with Ellen to help make up his mind regarding the divorce conditions. Their desultory afternoon spent visiting the local mall and a snowbound park as Joby tries to connect with his daughter seem to leave him still seeking a degree of reconciliation that may not be within reach.

A classic screwup without much going in his favor, Joby isn’t an especially sympathetic figure, beyond inspiring generic affinity for his single-father situation. In fact, it’s pretty clear why Claire would want a divorce and sole custody of their daughter, although throughout the film she herself remains a near-cipher.

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The scant character development is not enhanced by the film’s directorial style, which favors long, static shots, natural lighting that’s sometimes inadequate for clear image resolution and elemental editing that’s just sufficient to advancing the narrative (no editor is credited on the film). 

The performances are equally enervated, relying mostly on Dano’s ability to communicate disbelief, despair or anger by staring moodily into the distance or petulantly acting out. Although Heder’s role provides some comic notes, he doesn’t have much screen time and is never plausible as an actual attorney. Still, even a fractional character arc represents progress and Joby’s struggle toward self-realization is admirable to the extent that it’s actually persuasive.

Kim acknowledges that the basis for the film rests with her desire to understand her own absent father and the outcome of any potential re-encounter. By withholding substantial backstory and clear emotionality from her characters, she perhaps seeks to motivate audiences to invest the actors with their own concerns, with variable results.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, US Dramatic Competition
Cast: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Shaylena Mandigo, Julian Gamble
Director/screenwriter: So Yong Kim
Producers: Jen Gatien, Bradley Rust Gray, So Yong Kim
Executive producers: Paul Dano, Jonathan Vinnik, Michael Clofine, Tricia Quick, Rui Costa Reis, Dave Berlin
Director of photography: Reed Morano
Production designer: Ryan Smith
Music: Johann Johannsson
Sales: Memento Films
No rating, 95 minutes