11:23 am Sep. 6, 2012
The most striking thing about the first two, autobiographically-inspired features by Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim is the sensitivity with which they develop a young person’s point of view.
In the wintry, Toronto-set teenage heartache tone poem In Between Days (2006) and the abandoned-sisters saga Treeless Mountain (2008), shot in South Korea, she worked almost entirely with nonprofessional youngsters, building a cinema around observed detail and tiny gestures, charged by an unsentimental intimacy with individuals broken and displaced but not yet fully formed. If Kim has attained a recognizable sensibility—one shared, in part, with her husband and frequent collaborator Bradley Rust Gray—it resides in the stitching of her camera’s long, unbroken takes into a sort of perspectival empathy. The camera’s hovering presence is almost parental, a form of emotional compensation for putting the kids in harm’s way. Kim’s miniaturism and her humanism are cut from the same cloth.
The prototypical So Yong Kim character is the parent who behaves like a child, forcing the children to behave like adults. This figure is usually left offscreen, having escaped its responsibilities. In For Ellen, out this week, for the first time, Kim trains her focus on the adult catalyst as well as the child victim, at the same time putting a professional actor, and her first male protagonist, at the center of the film. The result is a small-scale departure, and a forgivable misstep; what For Ellen gains in polish it sacrifices in immediacy.
Expanding upon his impressive repertoire, 28-year-old Paul Dano (the brooding and hysterical pastor of There Will Be Blood; the effete novelist of Ruby Sparks) dons black leather and aviator shades as middling hard-rocker and deadbeat dad Joby Taylor. Sporting an unfortunate soul patch over a peach-fuzz goatee, dark nail polish chipping off his fingers, the lead singer of “Snake Trouble” exudes none of the signifiers of success. Kim’s screenplay avoids a detailed backstory, but any past glories have left only a fleeting trace. (It doesn’t help that it remains stubbornly difficult to picture Dano, get-up and all, fronting a metal band.)
Joby is introduced a moment before spinning his sedan into a snowbank, an unnecessarily ham-fisted metaphor for a dude who’s skidded off the straight and narrow. He’s weaving his way to a desolate patch of upstate New York to sign divorce papers for his silent, seething, estranged wife (Margarita Levieva), initially unaware that doing so means forfeiting custody of his six-year-old daughter, Ellen (first-time performer Shaylena Mandigo). Joby hasn’t seen the girl in a while, and can’t convince himself that he deserves parental authority, but he recognizes an emotional crossroads when he sees one. Aided by his charming loner of a lawyer (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder), who seems momentarily enthralled by the rocker’s muttering waywardness, Joby negotiates an afternoon playdate with his child, and For Ellen observes the possibility of a single visit awakening a sense of duty.
In their excursion to the food court of a depressing local mall—an idea likely cribbed from the “Top 10 Things To Do With Children” feature Joby ripped out of a magazine earlier—Joby and Ellen survey the grounds of their probably temporary companionship with a refreshing lack of sentiment. He confronts her with impossible questions, and she tries not to hurt his feelings. Almost inevitably, Kim’s film is stolen by the child performer, who in just a couple scenes communicates a capacity for forgiveness mixed with an unavoidable disapproval. “You seem like a nice person” is about the best that wise Ellen can muster.
Withholding judgment, Kim’s film suggests that for young men, the path to adulthood contains a never-ending set of escape hatches. At times, For Ellen wants to bottle the aura of Five Easy Pieces, that loose American riff on masculine irresponsibility—the final shot even pays it a cursory homage—but Kim's film saddles itself with such an unredeemable sadsack solipsist that we hardly hope for his reprieve. Unlike Maggie Cheung’s rocker addict in Olivier Assayas’ Clean, or Michael Pitt in Gus Van Sant’s similarly ennui-soaked Last Days, Joby cannot even wield his talent as a kind of saving grace. The metal stylings of Snake Trouble aren’t afforded much respect (or screen time), which leaves For Ellen feeling all the bleaker; Joby’s sold out his wife and daughter in an attempt to kickstart what sounds like a dime-store Alice in Chains.
Kim is able to mute the clichés inherent in the setup—the possibility of Joby’s redemption is never seriously entertained—but she doesn’t replace them with anything urgent or especially inquisitive. The style never confronts the material. If her other films were enlivened by a documentary spontaneity and a sense of peril, here Dano’s exquisite control too closely matches the flatness of his surroundings. In its uninflected naturalism, For Ellen never offers much distraction from the fact that we’re watching an instantly recognizable young actor in a pointedly unglamorous role. (A contrived last-minute appearance by a bleach-blond Jena Malone as Joby’s neglected girlfriend doesn’t help.) And though its title hints otherwise, the movie remains entirely dependent on Dano’s magnetism, because if you don’t count the snowscapes, dive bars, and parking lots surrounding him with their suggestive emptiness, he is the camera’s only real subject.
'For Ellen' is playing at Film Forum through September 18.
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