Monday, September 3, 2012

Paul Dano delights in So Yong Kim's problematic divorce drama, FOR ELLEN

Those of us who enjoy seeing the work of young actor Paul Dano (L.I.E., Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, The Extra Man and the current Ruby Sparks -- to name just five of his more than 30 appearances over the past 14 years) will not want to miss his latest little-independent-movie (he makes a lot of these), FOR ELLEN. Another good reason to see the film is its writer/director/
producer/editor So Yong Kim, who earlier gave us the pretty good In Between Days and the very good Treeless Mountain. (There's a third reason, too -- a very young one -- and we'll get to her further below.)

Ms Kim (shown at left), born in Korea but raised in Los Angeles, brings her special combination of nature/nurture to interesting affect in all her work -- in which children of various ages, teens and younger, play an important part.

Here, the child is a product of separated parents who are about to finalize their divorce, the father of whom (Joby Taylor, played by Mr. Dano, below) has barely laid eyes on his child since her birth. A moderately successful rock musician who proves to be mostly a jerk, Joby has driven all day and overnight to be at the signing of the divorce papers, in order to... what? He himself barely knows (nor do we), but it has something to do with seeing, and spending some time with, that child.

We get glimpses of the angry wife and mother, Claire (Margarita Levieva), who wants nothing more to do with Joby -- and you really can't blame her. But we spend so little time with Claire that her character barely exists, except as a roadblock to Joby's current needs and/or desires.

We spend more time with Joby's small-time lawyer (a quiet, funny and oddly charming performance from Jon Heder, above), who invites Joby home to partake in his mom's lasagna dinner.

Everything here is building up to Joby's possible reunion with his daughter -- the "Ellen" of the title -- brought to quite special life by the young actress Shaylena Mandigo (above). Ms. Kim has proven herself very good director of kids (or various ages), and this time she scores once again. Ms Mandigo all but steals the movie out from under Dano. But the older actor gets the cream of the scenes and so hold his own quite well.

I don't recall seeing Dano in a role anything like this one, in which he gets the chance to make us lose all patience with him and then, slowly, wins us back. The actor gives a rich, full performance, letting it all hang out -- from the ugly to the irresponsible to the funny and moving. Unfortunately, all the manipulation created to allow Joby and his daughter to finally get together is what make the movie defy credibility.

Granted we don't know much about wife/mother Claire, but what we do know would indicate that she would never -- given what she and we already have witnessed regarding Joby's crazy behavior -- allow this guy to be alone with his daughter, unaccompanied by any other adult. How Joby blackmails his way into this situation, also defies logic, law, and humanity's known penchant for hypocrisy.

Of course without all this, the meeting between father and daughter would never happen and the movie would not exist. But in any kind of realistic drama, which For Ellen stakes a claim to being, the filmmaker ought to have found some better way to finess this. While TrustMovies can easily go with some manipulation and coincidence in a genre movie, such as yesterday's horror/thriller, Serving Up Richard, in any legitimate drama, this is not, nor should it be, acceptable.

While this mars the movie pretty badly -- it's a deal-breaker, in fact -- it does not detract from Dano's fine work nor that of the rest of the cast. And Ms Kim shows herself a master of creating an upstate New York winter in lovely widescreen that chills to the bone. (This looks rather wonderful, actually, as our planet warms its way into extinction.)

For Ellen, from Tribeca Film and running 87 minutes, opens theatrically this Wednesday, September 5, in New York City at Film Forum, and will play a few other cities in the weeks to come. Click here and scroll down to see exactly which. On September 19, it will be available nationwide via VOD.

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