Paul Dano — pale and gangly, nobody’s preconceived image of a movie star — is a wonder of an actor, who has made some great choices in films, from There Will Be Blood, to the recent Ruby Sparks and a small but crucial role in the upcoming Looper. In So Yong Kim’s deliberate, meticulous For Ellen, Dano proves he can even make a flawed film worth watching.
His character, Joby, is more than the central figure; he is the only character the film truly develops. At the start we follow Joby, a not-quite-Goth-looking musician whose career barely exists, as he drives across a desolate, snowy landscape in upstate New York to sign divorce papers. He is blind-sided when he learns, from his well-meaning but incompetent lawyer (Jon Heder), that by signing the papers and getting his share of the house – money he desperately needs – he’ll be giving up rights to his 6-year-old daughter, Ellen.
This part of the film, more than half of it, offers an atmospheric glimpse at Joby’s forlorn life. He is not an effusive or articulate guy, and Dano’s often impassive face lets us see all the layers of confusion beneath: the fear of failure, the need for money, the wish not to be the bad guy and terrible Dad. (No wonder Dano was so good as the kid who wouldn’t talk in Little Miss Sunshine; he does really well without words.)
Still, most of the film turns out to be just a slow – really too slow – build-up to the moment when Joby visits Ellen, who is such a stranger he has to introduce himself. From the minute he meets her, the film is jolted to a higher level. Joby has absolutely no idea how to talk to a
child, but he tries, driving her to a mall, taking her to a toy store, in scenes that are awkward, excruciating, moving yet totally unsentimental.
Kim’s last film, Treeless Mountain (2008), was about two abandoned two little girls, and she gets another wonderfully natural child’s performance here from Shaylena Mandngo. Quiet little Ellen seems mystified by her suddenly-appearing father, at first more polite than curious, slowly warming up a bit. But this is not the kind of fantasy-film in which long-lost parents and children suddenly leap into each other’s arms. That realism is characteristic of Kim, one of her strengths. As Joby heads toward his decision, though, it is Dano’s’ performance that carries us through to the film’s eloquent, wrenching end.