Paul Dano from “Little Miss Sunshine” portrays a struggling rock star in “For Ellen,” a low-budget feature by So Yong Kim that deals with the temes of absence, denial and acceptance. Only 28-years-old, Dano has a lot to offer the world of cinema.
Dano’s character, Joby Taylor leaves Chicago in the middle of winter for a small town so he can sign an out-of-court divorce settlement with his ex-wife Claire, played by Margarita Levieva. But Taylor almost kills himself in the process.
Under the settlement conditions, Taylor receives half of the proceeds from selling the house he co-owns with his ex-wife, but he also loses custody of his young daughter, Ellen. Taylor does not take the terms well, as he realizes he will never be able to see his daughter again, and he becomes desperate for one last opportunity to spend time with her. His behavior is that of an insecure and confused teenager, and his failures as a family man are evident.
Dano succeeds as the self-absorbed and immature Taylor. Whether he is rocking out to heavy metal tracks, making unreasonable demands of his bandmate, or being clueless around his daughter, Dano’s performance seems heartfelt. He effortlessly transitions from cool and confident to desperate and confused to angry and defiant.
Kim captures the isolation of the setting well, smartly blending it with the story. Shot in Massena, N.Y. in the peak of winter, the film’s dull, snowy setting adds to the sad tone of the movie. The lack of natural light often forces one’s pupils to involuntarily dilate.
The problem with the movie is pacing. Scenes feel as if they take ages to end. Moreover, with the exception of Dano, the cast is average and barely receives any screen time. Taylor’s nerdy lawyer Fred — Jon Heder from “Napoleon Dynamite” — elicits a few laughs, but Heder is not even slightly convincing as a lawyer.
The movie does have its redeeming moments — notably, the scene where Taylor meets Ellen for the last time, desperate for her to accept that he is not a bad person. It is a simple yet beautiful scene that will linger with the viewer long after the movie ends. Also, Dano’s air-guitaring in a bar to Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” is one of the most inspired, energetic and enthusiastic performances in some time. Ultimately, “For Ellen” provides a great platform for Paul Dano to showcase his terrific talent.
A version of this article appeared in the Sept. 6 print edition. Rohan Narula is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com.
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