Knowing next to nothing about a film when you walk into a theater can be both a joy and a burden. It’s usually nice to know at least a synopsis. When all you know is that it stars Paul Dano, it leaves you with even less info. While a great character actor for sure, you just never know what kind of film it’s going to be. Dano has played everything from endowed teen Klitz in The Girl Next Door to Paul/Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. He even got to play a drunken cowboy in this past summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. Now Dano gets to explore a more personal side, dealing with growing up and letting go in writer/director So Yong Kim’s For Ellen (competing in the U.S. Dramatic category at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival).
Joby (Dano) has just made a long-distance overnight drive to meet with Claire (Margarita Levieva). The two are also meeting with their lawyers to go over divorce papers. What Joby doesn’t realize is that in order to receive his settlement, Claire wants him to give up his rights to their daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). After a hard night at the local bar, he meets again with his own lawyer, Butler (Jon Heder) to go over his options. That night, Butler invites Joby over to his mother’s house for dinner then the two head back to the bar where Joby starts to come to light on his situation. Joby makes a last ditch effort to see what he’s been missing and sets up a playdate with Ellen where he finally realizes that he truly wants whatever is best for everyone, even if it may wind up being the worst for himself.
I have to admit that during the first 45 minutes or so, I was not sold on the movie. I thought that Dano was trying too hard to channel young Nicolas Cage and the film sort of seemed like it was headed nowhere. Leave it to young Shaylena Mandigo to swoop in and save the day. With her big blue eyes, charming smile, and cute-as-a-button personality, she lights up the rest of the film. One scene toward the end may put a few viewers on edge as you start to question Joby’s intentions. Thankfully, director Kim keeps everything in perspective and lets the scene play out naturally instead of running things into the ground with melodramatics. So yes, For Ellen may be one of those tiny independent films you always hear people talking about during the Sundance Film Festival. But it is definitely worth a look if it ever pops up in a theater near you or at least on home video.