Put a quarter in the jukebox and the rocker Joby Taylor (Paul Dano) transforms. His loping gait diffuses into trance, a manic, writhing riff on his stage persona. It’s a conversion experience of sorts, fittingly enough: “For Ellen” is a tale of many metamorphoses.
Fitting, too, for Dano, an actor whose embodiment of sanctimonious preachers (“There Will Be Blood”), unspeaking teens (“Little Miss Sunshine”), and struggling novelists (“Ruby Sparks”) means not just a change of occupation, but of affect. With a tumult of hair, cheeks rounding into an ovoid chin, Dano is too distinctive to “disappear” into his roles — unlike, say, his “Blood” costar and uncanny Lincoln interpreter Daniel Day-Lewis — but his nuances of movement convey a thousand possible characters nonetheless.
That’s why Joby’s jukebox moment is so arresting. The bodily change of key comes not between roles but between beats, keeping time for Joby’s continual act of becoming. The scene is also central to understanding Tribeca Films’ “For Ellen,” from writer-director So Yong Kim, and not only because the excellent Dano buoys the film through its meditative pacing. The musician’s journey may be “For Ellen,” but it’s the shifts among Joby’s many faces — electric, wrung out, tender, defeated — that forms the core of the story.
In town to sign divorce papers, and possibly to connect with Ellen (the adorable Shaylena Mandigo), the daughter he left behind to chase his onstage dreams, the film matches Joby’s transformations with a subtle, effective aesthetic of day and night. The latter sequences are blurred, loud, claustrophobic. Even asleep, the camera holds tight to his goosebumps as a fly skitters across his skin. It’s only here, sun fallen, that he hums along to his guitar: this is Joby, building momentum, being alive. What about the rest of the time? Weighing his life as though it were merely a transaction — “Why does Claire get everything?” he laments — his selfishness, his wandering diffidence, are only laid bare during the days, pale, snow-covered, muffled: the hangover that follows the bender.
Luckily, Ellen calls, shaking Joby (and the film) from the quicksand of ennui. Their two hours together, at first terse and wary on both ends, blossom into a sweet kind of buddy picture, and in a brief, panicky moment at the mall, the energy of Joby’s narcissism is directed elsewhere for the first time.
“For Ellen” at times loses the narrative thread, as clumsy in certain sequences as it is striking in others. Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”), as Joby’s ludicrously inept attorney, is left adrift in yet another strange, awkward role, and the film’s failed coda, with Joby’s girlfriend (Jena Malone), lets the air out of an otherwise moving second half.
For in the series of exchanges between Joby and Ellen, the last of them set to a halting rendition of “Moonlight Sonata,” I warmed to “For Ellen” as Joby does to his daughter, maybe even fell in love for a spell. As he climbs out her window, the complications of his other life fade into the background for a moment, and Joby undergoes another conversion, no less powerful for being as quiet and crisp as the winter air. Day replaces night, and it turns out clarity is better than the blur.
“For Ellen,” on DVD today, is also available on Amazon Video, iTunes, vudu, and Netflix.