“For Ellen” is a small but exquisite film, beautifully observed and impeccably executed. Written and directed by So Yong Kim, it shows a different side of an actor we thought we knew and reveals unexpected aspects of a character who turns out to be not as familiar as he seems.
That would be Joby Taylor, a twentysomething hipster rock performer who’s lived only for his music and, on the verge of an unavoidable divorce, has to decide whether he can live for something else as well, his 6-year-old daughter, Ellen.
Playing Joby is Paul Dano, who’s been one of this year’s busiest actors, with appearances in “Being Flynn,” “Ruby Sparks” and the current “Looper.” But he’s taken himself so convincingly in a newer, more hard-edged direction here that the director said at Sundance that even friends who’d seen a pre-release screening didn’t recognize him in the part.
An all-attitude all-the-time band frontman with a noticeable temper and a natural anti-authoritarian attitude, Joby puts a lot of effort into looking convincingly Mephistophelean, down to his tattoos, piercings, black fingernails and adornments galore.
But for all his don’t-mess-with-me bravado, there remains something unmistakably still the child about Joby, something woebegone about how easily he gets his feelings hurt and ends up frustrated and aggrieved.
Collaborating closely with writer-director Kim, Dano does some of the best, most nuanced work of his career in making this character convincingly his own, from the rangy way Joby walks to the intensity with which he throws himself into rocking out to a bar jukebox version of Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night.”
More than that, once Joby’s persona is established, “For Ellen” takes this character totally outside his comfort zone, removes this urban legend in his own mind to the icy fastness of upstate New York in winter, a frozen place where he couldn’t be more of a stranger if he was the man who fell to earth.
What calls Joby to the wild is the need to sign legal papers that will finalize his divorce from Claire (Margarita Levieva), who has so had it with Joby and his posturing that she won’t even speak directly to him when they are in the same lawyer’s office.
Always short of funds, Joby is eager for the house they once shared to be sold so he can pocket half the proceeds, but what he hadn’t focused on is that to get his hands on the money, he will have to give up custody rights to his daughter.
It’s not that Joby has actually paid much attention to Ellen; when asked whether he’s ever sent his wife a mortgage payment or child support, the best he can do is petulantly insist, “I tried.”
But the finality of the situation turns out to be unaccountably painful to Joby. “This is totally unfair,” he whines to his earnest, hopelessly square young lawyer (an amusing Jon Heder), and he sets out to do something about it.
As those who saw her fine previous works, “Treeless Mountain” and “In Between Days,” understand, filmmaker Kim is a gifted minimalist, someone whose mastery of emotional and psychological mood is both complete and discreet.
So it’s to be expected that what Joby is after is not some enormous change. All he wants is a chance to “hang out” with Ellen for an afternoon, to “do stuff a father and daughter do.” What that might be specifically Joby has no idea, but it is, he no doubt feels, the thought that counts.
When we come to meet tiny, remarkably self-possessed Ellen, she turns out to be the perfect counterpoint to Joby’s manic edginess. Bringing her to perfect life is newcomer Shaylena Mandigo, discovered by director Kim in a physical education class in the film’s Massena, N.Y., location.
“She was one of the most serious little girls I’d ever seen, even doing skipping and jumping jacks in P.E.,” the director said at Sundance, where the film debuted. “She was meticulous; she would not stop until she was finished,” a quality that pays off beautifully here.
“For Ellen” has far too much wisdom about human psychology to present anything ostentatiously grand here. What changes for Joby — and it’s too early to say whether anything lasting does — is a question of awareness of the person he might yet be, an unlooked-for glimpse into life’s other side. This may not sound like a lot, but it could turn out to be everything.