For Ellen

Directed by: So Yong Kim

Starring:  Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Shaylena Mandingo, Margerita Levieva

I had high hopes when I saw the cast of For Ellen.  I enjoyed Paul Dano in Little Miss Sunshine and Jon Heder is a quirky actor.  The premise of a rock musician dad struggling for custody of his daughter sounded promising; and I anticipated a profound and compelling tale.  While the acting is superior, the film is unfortunately quite dull.

Joby Taylor (Dano) is a struggling rock musician who is at a crossroads in his life.  He has sacrificed his family to attain professional success.  Still, true stardom eludes him, and he is battling his band to maintain heart and integrity in their music.  In the midst of his professional crisis, Joby returns home to finalize his divorce from his estranged wife Claire (Margerita Levieva).

Much to Joby’s dismay, Claire has moved on and wants to erase him from her life.  She wants the house and she wants Joby to sign away any parental rights he has with respect to their daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandingo).  Joby is stunned.  Although he has not been around for years, paid any bills or child support or even seen his daughter, he’s not ready to lose everything.  He enlists the help of attorney Fred Butler (Jon Heder) to help him fight for his daughter.

For Ellen has some merit as a film.  Dano delivers an outstanding, layered performance as Joby Taylor.  He is convincing as a down and out rocker and has the moves and looks of a lead singer.  More importantly, he is able to play the role in a way that invokes sympathy and loathing at the same time.  On the one hand, he is so lost and so earnest in wanting to do the right thing and make something in his life work.  On the other hand, Joby clearly chose himself over his family, and the mess that he is dealing with is one of his own making.

The most compelling moments of the film are Joby’s interactions with his daughter Ellen.  They are awkward and forced.  Little Ellen does not know her father and when she stares at him with sad eyes filled with wisdom, it is raw and real.  As a viewer, I felt almost like I was intruding on a personal moment: when an absentee father faces the reckoning—not from an angry ex, but an innocent child trying to understand why she was cast aside.  Those scenes are bittersweet and powerful.

However, these scenes alone are not enough to save the film.  A good portion of For Ellen consists of Joby by himself thinking and reflecting on the choices he has made in his life and the decision regarding custody facing him.  Unfortunately, in a film, watching someone think is incredibly boring.  If For Ellen was a book, we could delve into Joby’s thoughts and ride the journey of self-reflection with him.  Instead, we’re left in limbo watching the lead character’s silent struggle. 

I have to give For Ellen a .09 rating.  Dano and Mandingo give amazing performances, but the actors alone are not enough to make this film a must see.  Grab a Nuvo Martini to entertain you during the numerous lulls in the movie.