Review: So Yong Kim's FOR ELLEN

So Yong Kim, one of the US's finest filmmakers, celebrated by critic A.O. Scott in a 2009 New York Times article as a practitioner of American "neo-neo realism," finds her inspiration in deeply autobiographical places, working out personal issues from her past and present circumstances in beautifully rendered and often transcendent art. Kim's third feature For Ellen, which opens September 5 at New York's Film Forum, is no exception, and in fact Kim has said in a number of interviews that this is her most personal film. This, despite the fact that the film's Caucasian cast would seem to be culturally quite far removed from Kim's own Korean-American origins. What makes For Ellen most interesting in the context of Kim's still-young career is its mixture of affinities with, and significant departures from, her previous work. For one thing, although Kim is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, For Ellen is her first feature actually shot in the States; her first feature In Between Days was shot in Canada, while her second, Treeless Mountain, was filmed in her birth country of South Korea. Despite their geographical disparities, however, all of Kim's films are of a piece visually and stylistically. Each of her three features combines slow, patient observations of its characters, situating them in vast, often harsh and forbidding, yet beautifully filmed landscapes, whether it be in Toronto, rural Korea, or the wintry upstate New York setting of her latest film. Kim's casting of these characters, though, represents a striking departure from her two previous films, which were largely acted by non-professionals. For Ellen, in contrast, features Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood) playing the central character, and he gives one of his finest and most nuanced performances here. Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Jena Malone are two more recognizable faces that impress in supporting roles.

For Ellen, again in similarity to Kim's other films, doesn't have a plot so much as a central situation that exists as the backdrop for close character observation, much of it dialog-free. Here we follow hard-rock musician Joby Taylor (Paul Dano), who at a low point in his struggling, almost-famous career, finds himself in the wintry climes of Massena, New York, a desolate town near the Canadian border. Joby has skipped out on an upcoming gig with his band Snake Trouble in order to take care of some rather unpleasant business: negotiating a divorce settlement with his soon-to-be ex-wife Claire (Margarita Levieva). Their apparently brief period of matrimony has engendered a considerable amount of bad blood between the two, to the point where Claire refuses to speak directly to Joby, preferring to communicate through their lawyers. Joby's aimless irresponsibility and lack of attention to details which torpedoed his marriage comes back to bite him hard when he notices a stipulation of the settlement that somehow escaped his attention. The divorce papers that he must sign that will net him a share of the sale of their home come with one very big string attached: he must give up all custody and visitation rights to their six-year-old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). Even though Joby has been absent from his daughter's life, having been wrapped up in his music career, he now implores his lawyer Fred Butler (Jon Heder) to renegotiate and nullify this clause so he can begin a relationship with Ellen.

By all appearances, however, Joby is rather less than prime father material. He mostly spends his downtime getting drunk in bars and picking up random women. Joby's immaturity and narcissism makes maintaining personal relationships quite a challenge, as evidenced in his shouting match over the phone with a bandmate ("You're nothing without me! I'm fucking Joby Taylor!"). Consequently, we see Joby in much of the first half of the film living mostly in his own solitary headspace, rocking out to loud music in his car or on his headphones, or broodingly regarding himself in the mirror. Joby's lawyer Butler attempts to draw him out by inviting him to dinner at his house, where Butler still lives with his mother, and later accompanying him to a local bar, in scenes which supply For Ellen with its fleeting flashes of humor. Joby ultimately rejects this human connection, in a long scene in which he performs an elaborate dance sequence with himself, with the accompaniment of a jukebox blaring Whitesnake's song "Still of the Night." He drunkenly sends Butler away soon after, angry that his lawyer can't get him what he wants.

For Ellen's first half doles out details of Joby's character and his situation slowly, patiently, so much so that the pace may try some viewers' patience. But this is all setup for the latter passages, which pack a quietly emotional punch, and add deeper shadings to our perception of Joby, making him more sympathetic without excusing his flaws. In this last section, Joby is finally allowed a two-hour visit with his daughter Ellen, during which he tries to feel her out and determine whether it would be possible to finally be a presence in her life. Their meeting is at first painfully awkward, with Joby unsuccessfully trying to elicit responses from a not very talkative Ellen; this occasions a humorous scene in which Joby follows Ellen for a long while as she gravely deliberates what toy she will choose. Soon, however, the ice melts a little between them, but the issue of where Joby has been all her life still looms. A late scene in which Ellen shows a bit of musical talent herself, playing Beethoven's "Fur Elise" for her father, makes for a very melancholy and moving moment. These scenes confirm Kim's talent for eliciting memorable performances out of children, so much in evidence in Treeless Mountain. Ellen's quizzical and guarded reactions to this stranger who calls himself her father are nicely played by first-time performer Shaylena Mandigo, who Kim found in an elementary school in Massena. The interplay between Dano and Mandigo gives rise to the film's loveliest and most emotional moments.

The relationship between parents and children, especially when this is complicated by absence and outright abandonment, is a strong thematic and emotional thread that runs throughout So Yong Kim's films. In Between Days and Treeless Mountain are exquisitely sensitive portraits of young girls caught up in these circumstances, and their stories are told from the children's perspective. For Ellen shows us the reverse angle, focusing on the deserter, the deadbeat dad who shirks his responsibility. Pertinently, the title of the piece calls attention to the young girl, and specifically the fact that Ellen represents an opportunity for Joby to be less selfish and consider the welfare of others, and to find the way out of an existence that has become a peripatetic series of dead ends. However, the film's conclusion, consciously staged by Kim in homage to Bob Rafelson's 1970 classic Five Easy Pieces, forces us to seriously question whether Joby is ready for this new way of thinking and living. 

For Ellen is as much a visual wonder as Kim's other films; Reed Morano's widescreen cinematography, shot in now increasingly rare 35mm, gives us a palpable sense of the winter chill that permeates everything we see, mirroring Joby's emotional desolation with the starkness of his physical environment. Performance-wise, this is very much Paul Dano's show. In a role that sharply contrasts with the eccentrics and oddballs he has heretofore portrayed, Dano invests a character with the stereotypical image of the hard-rocking dude - tattoos, black-painted fingernails, greasy and unkempt hair, leather jacket - with an intensely committed performance that commands every inch of the screen. 

Alternating between intimate character close-ups and vast landscape panoramas, So Yong Kim's austere stylistics put us at an emotional distance from her characters' plight, especially in the film's first half. Even though Kim mines autobiographical material here - the Joby character was inspired by Kim's father, whom she only met once as a young girl - the results here feel less intensely resonant than her other work. But when Ellen enters the picture, the emotional stakes increase, and the strength of Kim's filmmaking rises with it, leaving us with renewed admiration for what is shaping up to be one of the most vital and distinctive voices in world cinema today.

For Ellen opens September 5 in New York at Film Forum, and runs through September 18. So Yong Kim and Paul Dano will appear in person at the September 7, 8:20pm show, and So Yong Kim will be at the September 8, 6:30pm show. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Film Forum's website. For Ellen will also be available on VOD September 19. For details, visit Tribeca Film's website.

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