Sundance London Festival Movie Review – For Ellen (2012)

For Ellen, 2012.

Written and Directed by So Yong Kim.
Starring Paul Dano, Jon Heder and Shaylena Mandigo.


SYNOPSIS:

A struggling musician attempts to get joint custody of his six year old daughter.


The film opens at a crossroads. A literal crossroads. Joby Taylor (Paul Dano), the lead singer of a fictional rock band, looks through the window of his car at a sign. He can go left, or he can go right. As metaphors go, it’s as heavy handed as Donkey Kong.

The film sketchily details Joby’s custody battle for his titular daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). His ex-wife has offered him half the value of their house, despite Joby rarely paying his share of the mortgage, in return for her having full-custody of Ellen. It’s all there in the legal documents Joby was supposed to read, but he managed to interpret it as “half the house, half the kid”. He’s a dropout, a waster, and when he begins to whine and break down, it’s pretty difficult to feel sorry for him. He’s completely self-absorbed.

It’s an obsession he shares with the film itself, which becomes increasingly frustrating as it shuffles forward. Really, there are only two other characters of note besides Joby – the aforementioned Ellen, and his solicitor, Fred Butler (an ‘as-far-away-from-Napolean-Dynamite-as-you-can-get’ Jon Heder) – but neither he nor the film show any interest in them.

In particular, Joby and Fred’s relationship is never explained. We learn everything about Joby pretty quickly – that he’s in a band, that he’s having “creative differences”, that he’s trying to get his daughter back – but after several scenes with the two together, we’re non the wiser of Fred. After the second rejection for joint custody, Fred invites Joby for dinner. His mum makes a killer lasagna, apparently.

It comes off as awkward and sudden, a forced plot point to learn even more about the oh-so-tortured Joby. Why would Fred invite him for dinner? There are no hints that their relationship is any more than professional, and we know Joby has been away from this part of the country for six years with his band, so it’s not like they bump into each other all that much. We know it’s six years, because that’s how old his daughter now is; a daughter he has never seen (which again begs, “why the hell should we care about him having custody?”).

I invented my own reasoning, that they’re old school friends who have since grown far apart. But there’s a fine line between ambiguous plot points and plot holes. The problem with For Ellen is that the line is crossed far too often.

The obsession with Joby extends from character and narrative to the film’s visual style. The camera is drawn to him like a magnet, the shaky, uninterrupted framing held constantly tight. It should create a level of intimacy, but Joby’s solipsism and self-pity steadily saps each scene’s intensity, each one becoming more like endurance tests than anything engaging.

One extended scene, which you assume to be intended with awkward humour, shows Joby and Ellen picking out a toy from the store. It’s the first interaction they’ve had for six years, and Joby is at a loss for what to do, constantly referencing a creased ‘Top 5 Activities to do with your Kid’ leaflet in his pocket. The shot is long and static, and held for what feels like hours. In any other film, this could be hilarious – Ellen slowly scanning each toy to find the perfect one, with Joby uncomfortably watching over from behind. But the comedic length doesn’t work BECAUSE ALL THE OTHER SHOTS IN THE FILM ARE EQUALLY DULL AND LONG.

Every time For Ellen musters up some tension, any anxiety is quickly dashed to maintain its ambling pace. When Joby emerges from a mall toilet to find Ellen not where he left her, the film becomes genuinely tense for about a minute. This is his one chance for any sort of closure. He’s been trusted with Ellen for a couple of hours, and he can’t even do that right. Where could she be?

Oh, wait, there she is. Just round the corner.

But all of this could work if Joby was interesting. Unfortunately his solipsism is neither of the endearing heel, nor comedic buffoon. He typifies waster, burnout, lacking any of the engaging characteristics found in similar stereotypes in other films. And for all the focus on Joby, the film’s closing shot suggests absolutely no character progression, which is a pretty big slap in the face.

It’s Indie-by-numbers, self-obsessed, indulgent drivel.

Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ / Movie N/A

Oliver Davis

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