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Almost famous

So Yong Kim bags a star lead for her new film FOR ELLEN and stepping up front and centre, Paul Dano shows a whole new side of himself in his best performance to date, says Timothy E.RAW, who also talks to So Yong Kim at the first annual Sundance UK Film Festival.

 

Not yet thirty, Paul Dano has already racked up the kind of resume that any actor who dreams of indie integrity (with the occasional dip in the blockbuster pool) would kill for.

Working with filmmakers of distinction on budgets that range from micro to massive, the impressive roll call of names includes Paul Thomas Anderson, Kelly Reichardt, Richard Linklater, Rian Johnson, Michael Cuesta and Steve McQueen. Names that to cinephilles, have a pulling power all of their own.

Often playing co-lead (There Will Be Blood, The Good Heart, Being Flynn) and with many prominent supporting roles in ensembles (Little Miss Sunshine, Fast Food Nation, Explicit Ills), Dano has only recently been given the opportunity of lead roles with Ruby Sparks and now So Yong Kim's For Ellen.

Joby Taylor is a failed musician who simply doesn't know when to quit. Skipping out on his wife when his daughter was born, he hit the road for rock n' roll stardom and nothing has worked out quite how he planned. Six years later, Joby remains unknown and unsigned, still hasn't made that breakthrough album and is struggling to come up with the money to do so.

The money he needs to keep his rock star dream alive is in the sale of the house owned with his soon-to-be ex-wife Claire (Margarita Levieva). All Joby has to do is take a long cross-country trip to the remote, wintery, dead-end town where Claire's now living and sign their divorce papers.

There's a snag though. In order to get his 50% of the house settlement, he has to give up all legal rights to see his daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo).

Joby has never even met his daughter so at first it seems like a logical and easy decision, but the constant squabbling with his band mate over songwriting duties, the direction of the music and driving hundreds of miles out of his way, only to be told another back room bar gig has been cancelled, leaves Joby lying around in cheap motel rooms asking himself what the hell he thinks he's playing at.

Now on his unteempth attempt at a music career going nowhere, it dawns on Joby that giving up on fatherhood and the real world responsibilities of parenthood means giving up on a stable, emotionally fulfilling and potentially much happier life.

Such a small percentage of people actually make it as musicians and even fewer are able to pay the bills doing so. There's no science to it, you either have it or you don't. It's a born-to-do-it attitude of cooler than thou nonchalance and burning self-determination. A confidence that makes the room lean in toward you and a persona that stands out in a crowd.

When we first meet Joby doing his make-up in a dingy bathroom stall, everything about his look feels secondhand and off the shelf.

With his purposely-chipped black nail varnish, threadbare fingerless gloves and scraggy facial hair, Joby, looks like he's auditioning for HIM. Authentic enough to the untrained eye, his entire outfit has the distinct whiff of Hot Topic about it. At first it's hard to accept Paul Dano's pierced, leather-clad transformation and to try and take him seriously, until you realize that that's exactly the point. You're not supposed to. The fact that Kim gives us a moment of Joby dying his barely-there bum fluff tells us exactly what she thinks of him and his chances of making it. Front man name apart, as played by Dano, Joby has something of the beanpole runt about him, misshapen putty features all squashed and nervous. Quivers of insecurity running through his misplaced belief and inarticulate with rage, Dano is never better at making us feel the last chance stakes, than when he's shuffling round in long periods of halting silence. Taking his cue from the character's isolation and the boxed-in locations covered in mounds of snow, Jóhann Jóhannsson's airless score also plays its part in tightening an aural noose around Joby's neck.

Artistically barren, like the vast expanses of bleak, unforgiving landscape that travel alongside him in the car and greet him through his motel window, he only has talent for delusions of grandeur. "I'm fucking Joby Taylor!" he screams at his band mate in one of his hissy fits. Evidently, a nobody who owes money for his shitty recording and can't afford to pay any alimony or child support.

The only time we do see him play his guitar is an idle strumming of the Donovan song "Hurdygurdy Man" which memorably played over the trailer for Dano's breakout film as a child actor, L.I.E. directed by the aforementioned Michael Cuesta. The callback to that film also suggests that boyish-looking Dano is playing an equally childish character in this film, someone who needs to grow up, along with his expectations.

Beginning to come to terms with this, he puts together what money he has and hires stay-at-home lawyer Fred (Jon Heder, almost making us forget he was the star of Napoleon Dynamite), a grown man still asking his mother's permission to go out for a beer. Joby is thrilled to find that Fred has his band's first album, then not so thrilled to learn he bought it at a yard sale for spare change.

Sensing that Fred might doubt his rock star prowess, he gets a few beers too deep at a bar one night and puts on a drunken air guitar display of Whitesnake's stadium anthem "In the Heat of the Night". Using every stage move in the book, Joby (and it turns out, Dano) is the consummate showman. Playing to Fred and the guy waiting to close up like he's staking the stage at Wembley, it's a widely extravagant but also tragically revealing scene, utterly ridiculous and unexpectedly moving. The dialogue-stunted film's equivalent of a dramatic monologue.

Dano may have better roles than Joby somewhere in the future, but the vulnerability and expressiveness of this single scene is a show reel moment that'll take some beating.    

Hinging on the moment where Joby meets his little girl for the first time, their scenes together have an even-keeled naturalism that never steps over the line of being emotionally expositional or exploitative. Even a moment where Joby momentarily loses Ellen in the mall doesn't give itself over to the sentimental imperative that Crazy Heart did with the exact same scenario.

If the film spends much of it's time accustoming us to long passages of silence, we're not at all comfortable with it when the absentee father sits down with his abandoned daughter and fails to make small talk over lunch in the food court. Joby can barely believe that the child across from him is actually his and that he's getting to spend time with her. Ordinarily, watching characters in close-up not talking is a chance to get to see them think. Confronted with the life he helped bring into this world and all the wrongs he's already done by her, Joby has too much going on in his head to even do that. He's simply trying to breathe. Struggling with what to say, the longer he sits there emitting barely intelligible sounds, the more obvious the elephant in the room becomes.

If Joby's silence is pained, it hardly bares comparison to a little girl building up the confidence to ask her father why he didn't come and see her in the last six years. If Joby doesn't know the answer it's because he doesn't know the first thing about being a father. Hanging back in a toy shop as Ellen minutely inspects every toy on every shelf, the scene has the awkwardness of a first date almost, where neither has anything to say to the other, a stop-start fumbling for any sense of connection.

When he finally blurts out his confession of how he essentially traded his daughter for a record deal and gave up on love for something he was never going to get in the first place, it's not at all delicate. In trying to make Ellen understand, he asks adult questions a girl her age is nowhere near ready to understand.

Joby's awakening is a rude one, and though it instigates a re-assessment of his priorities, the film leaves us uncertain as to whether it will provoke the necessary growth that'll push him toward fatherhood.
When his girlfriend (an all-too brief Jena Malone) turns up unexpectedly to take him away from all this heartache, Joby runs away again. Away from who and towards what we're not sure, a question that's harder to contemplate with a Five Easy Pieces rip-off ending that pulls us out of the picture.

No matter. Dano's oddly sympathetic portrayal lends Joby a loser's heroism, whichever way he's headed. Like her star, Kim is so straight-ahead and uncompromisingly honest in her directorial approach, that it's a hard film to shake after seeing.

 


Writer-director So Yong Kim talks to Timothy E. RAW about For Ellen at the 2012 Sundance London Film Festival. The video has been optimised to be viewed full screen at 720p, which can be selected in the settings pop-up in the control bar.

 


For Ellen is currently showing at the following cinemas. It can also be bought or rented via the US iTunes store.

For Ellen

USA 2012
94 mins
director
So Yong Kim
producers
Jen Gatien
Bradley Rust Gray
So Yong Kim
screenplay
So Yong Kim
cinematography
Reed Morano
editing
Bradley Rust Gray
So Yong Kim
music
Jóhann Jóhannsson
production design
Ryan Smith
starring
Paul Dano
Jon Heder
Shaylena Mandigo
Jena Malone
Margarita Levieva
Dakota Johnson
Alex Mauriello
distributor
Soda Pictures
release date
15 February 2013
review posted
16 February 2013