With a directorial voice as consistent as that of any current American independent filmmaker, So Yong Kim takes what could have been routine story elements and transforms them into something deeply sad and touching in “For Ellen.” As a struggling rocker making a last-ditch attempt to gain shared custody of his daughter, Paul Dano delivers a beautifully wrought performance in a different key from any of his previous roles. The patient pace and generally forlorn tone makes this a tough sell Stateside, though Berlin screenings will attract much Euro bidding.
The separation of parents from children, through choice and circumstance, is a driving theme in Kim’s increasingly fascinating filmography, and here, she reverses the kids’ perspective offered in “Treeless Mountain” to observe that of a parent trying to restore the connection. It’s also her third film set in firmly in as many countries, from Canada in “In Between Days” to South Korea in “Treeless” to a thoroughly American wintry landscape in “For Ellen.”
That setting is vivid from the film’s first moments, as Joby (Dano) drives through the night to a meeting of lawyers and ex-wife Claire (Margarita Leveiva). Joby is unnerved that he can’t speak to Claire directly, but rather has to go through his attorney Fred (Jon Heder). Above all, he’s unwilling to sign the final divorce papers until he can gain some shared custody of little daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo).
As Kim demonstrated in her previous work, written and improvised dialogue function side-by-side throughout; this is apparent in this initial meeting and in a subsequent parking-lot confrontation between a desperate Joby and an impervious Claire, who then effectively vanishes from the film. Within the pic’s first 15 minutes, Dano’s intense commitment to the role, combined with the partially improvised dialogue, establishes the kind of spontaneity that marks the strong lead performances in several of Robert Altman’s best films.
Joby is his own worst enemy, drinking himself into a stupor at nights and being a generally unreliable lead singer-guitarist in his East Coast-based band. Kim’s script provides enough information in a single embattled phone call between Joby and a bandmate to provide all we need to know about the lousy state of his professional career.
More confidently than in her earlier films, Kim shows a real sense of humor in “For Ellen,” with the smart casting of “Napoleon Dynamite’s” Heder as the super-straight Fred, who still lives at home with his mom, and invites Joby over for an awkwardly managed dinner. The sequence spins into a memorable scene in a local bar where a startled Fred watches Joby drunkenly prance and cavort through an air-guitar performance.
The emotional payoff arrives in a 28-minute sequence in which Joby is finally granted a two-hour visit with Ellen. Dano and Mandigo interact with each other over a span of activities that begin awkwardly and feel so real as to blur the line between actors getting a sense of each other and characters striving for a connection; Kim’s always patient regard for her thesps yields great rewards.
The surprise entrance of someone from Joby’s present is in line with the pic’s view of life as a train of unexpected events, as is Joby’s last impulsive decision, ending this elegy on a pitch-perfect note.
Supporting Dano, Heder is so far from the studied nerdiness of “Napoleon” that he seems like a different actor, while child thesp Mandigo has a keen instinct for being in the moment. The cast takes advantage of the many wordless spaces that Kim allows.
Working as always with her husband and fellow filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray as co-editor, Kim keeps the pacing slow and steady, marred only by a few mannered music cues. Reed Morano’s widescreen 35 mm cinematography conveys the deep-winter chill as a quiet counterpoint to Joby’s jangled state of mind. Location work in off-the-beaten-path East Coast sites is superb.