A nostalgic trip to the road movie era

So Yong Kim’s For Ellen pays homage to 1970s American cinema but fails to capture its terse emotionality.

Tom Slater
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In the round of interviews promoting her first American-set feature film, For Ellen, Korean director So Yong Kim has claimed to have taken her lead from the rugged American classics of the 1970s. Indeed, For Ellen explores the same restlessness and propulsive self-absorption that defined the classics of that era. But forget road movies and blunt-puffing abandon; this is a mumblecore flick about finally turning off the highway and taking a long, hard look at yourself.

Paul Dano, continuing to keep it real on the indie circuit while nabbing bigger roles (a la Looper and Ruby Sparks), plays Joby Taylor, a struggling musician who travels to a sleepy, snow-capped town to sign divorce papers.

Driving all night after playing a gig, Joby staggers into the pokey office of his wife’s lawyer, who proceeds to parrot the details of the settlement while she sits attendant in despondent silence. In his weathered leather jacket and ripped skinnys, Joby sits awkwardly alongside this tubby moustachioed attorney and his respectable-looking erstwhile missus. The profoundly mundane meeting seethes with tension between the rakish would-be rocker and the nice girl-next-door he left behind to chase the limelight.

While both of them are clearly eager to get it over and done with, negotiations hit a snag when it is revealed that Joby will only be able to claim his share of the house if he foregoes any contact with their five-year-old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). Having not been around since she was a baby, he doesn’t stand a chance in a custody battle, and settles for one day out with her and the chance to say goodbye.

Aside from a few clanging banalities – Joby buying her the wrong doll; ‘I can’t call you dad’ – their meeting is subtly moving. Yong Kim, drawing upon the time her own absentee father showed up announced one day in her youth, weaves a strange formality into the scenes between father and daughter. They’re essentially strangers, and so after a few pushes on the swings, things take on the form of an extended interview where Joby’s straightfaced offspring quizzes him about why he’s never been around. Joby regretfully offers his story about being a young musician desperate to make it, and about his fraught relationship with her mother, but his lame excuses disintegrate even as he utters them. His self-delusions fall apart before our eyes, with Yong Kim painting a sorrowful picture of an overgrown teenager whose rock star pretentions only disguise a malignant self-absorption.

Outside of these few incisive moments, however, For Ellen is pretty unremarkable. Confusing naturalism with tedium, Yong Kin’s camera ambles shakily after her characters in meandering, often inconsequential scenes with a few lingering shots of the frozen landscape chucked in for brooding indie-flick effect.

Dano provides a solid, softly spoken and unshowy lead – that is, excluding the bit where he decides to launch into a sozzled lip-sync rendition of Whitesnake’s ‘Still of the Night’. It’s a laughably ill-fitting moment that should have been consigned to the blooper reel.

The final scene is yet more troubling. A near shot-for-shot homage to the ending of Bob Rafelson’s 1970 classic, Five Easy Pieces, a story of another young man prone to fleeing at the first sign of trouble, it solidifies Yong Kim’s professed debt to a certain age of cinema, while also highlighting her inability to match that era’s terse emotionality.

Then again, perhaps this is a fitting way to leave a character who, we come to see, really isn’t worth shedding tears over.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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