For Ellen Review

Film Still
  • For Ellen film still


This stark, snow-capped character study showcases some heart-wrenching work from leading man Paul Dano.

In Between Days established Korean-American writer, director and producer So Yong Kim as a storyteller of great subtlety. Depicted in long, naturalistic takes, her characters were rendered inarticulate by everyday confusions. Six years later, her first English-language feature does away with the subtitles but keeps the sound of silence cranked up high.

Legally summoned from his Chicago home by soon-to-be-ex-wife Claire (Margarita Levieva), angry goth-rocker Joby (Paul Dano) takes a long drive to the cold and desolate town of Massena, NY. Lingering shots of this sullen, black-clad figure moving against a frozen white landscape symbolise the dischord he brings to every scene.

Dano’s dainty features are striking and the gulf between his impression of innocence and the indecency he bottles up inside him is deeply unsettling. Playing an author in Ruby Sparks, his dark side was submerged beneath a jovial, puckish manner. Joby’s a more combustible beast. His attempt to coax Claire out for a conciliatory coffee turns nasty when she doesn’t succumb. Profanities fall from his lips. Props to Dano that he was able to make this toxically unhappy man even remotely bearable.

Events surrounding his fractured marriage are shrouded in mystery. The script and camera focus on Dano, staying protectively away from Claire as if she’s suffered enough. We’re stuck with Joby and the minutae of how he handles personal issues.

With the story refusing to go faster than a plod and little human interaction for release, we’re constantly pushed uncomfortably close to the protagonist. Kim’s slow-burning narrative sometimes leads to poignancy, sometimes to dead air.

The catalyst for something approaching development is the news that Claire wants Joby to sign away his paternal rights to a casually introduced daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). Joby decides to stay and fight... for Ellen. Inasmuch as this maddeningly understated drama is about anything concrete, it’s a character study of a man contemplating the advantages of giving a damn.

Mandigo, a non-actor Kim scouted at a school, provides a splash of enervating sweetness and sincerity. As in Kim’s second feature Treeless Mountain, this neglected child embodies more maturity and poise than the wayward adult guardian she’s left with. The scenes in which a desperate Joby makes small talk with Ellen devastate. Hand-held camerawork creates the impression that this is the world’s most intrusive documentary.

Yet such is the overall starkness of tone that most ingredients only overwhelm. This is true of Mandigo, of the farcical moments that are a shade too painful to be funny and of the startling observations that emanate from the static atmosphere. Jena Malone’s brief turn as Joby’s girlfriend, Susan, all but screams that new relationships need to leave space for old relationships. This is but one of the sage musings that pass through but find no place to settle in this barren land.

Check out our exclusive interview with director So Yong Kim.

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