Director: So Yong Kim
Starring: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Shaylena Mandigo
Written by: So Yong Kim
Running Time 93 mins
Release date: 15th February 2013
Independent cinema has a knack of taking a simple storyline and making it into something rather special that big budget Hollywood fare manage to ruin. Foe Ellen is the perfect example of that, a tale of a man wanting custody of his daughter and yet, without once going into melodrama or hamming it up, we are presented to a heart-breaking tale with a brilliant central performance.
Joby Taylor is a struggling rock star, running out of money and balancing between that fine line of adolescence and adulthood. He travels to a wintry state in order to sign the paperwork from his estranged wife so he can take claim of half the money from their home. Only thing is, by signing he will lose custody of his young daughter, Ellen. Needing time to think, he decides he wants to spend a little time with the little girl and so is allowed two hours. At this point, Taylor’s decision becomes increasingly harder.
So Yong Kim’s film never rushes anything. Long, uninterrupted shots form the mass of the movie, with long moments of silences and beautifully photographed scenery. It has no action whatsoever, no loud, unnecessary shouting and, on the face of it, very little happens at all. And yet it is always engaging and always believable thanks to some perfect observations and performances from actors who are gifted and bring out the truth in their characters.
Paul Dano, who has been on the edge of greatness after roles in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, is utterly heart-breaking as the lost musician desperate to do the right thing and yet struggling with his own demons. He wants to be able to see his daughter but he knows he cannot give up the money that he so desperately needs. On screen almost constantly throughout the film, it is a mesmerizing yet quietly underplayed performance with moments in which you might not have personally experienced what Taylor does but you can see the truth behind it.
Jon Heder, known for being Napoleon Dynamite, is almost unrecognisable as Taylor lawyer and young Shaylena Mandigo, as Ellen, is a pure delight. A child who is neither sickening or obnoxious and with the most piercing blue eyes you will ever see.
There are moments in this film that, while never in your face, will make you wonder if you are actually watching a film or real life. A scene in which Ellen is in a toy shop and is slowly checking out ever toy on the shelf while Taylor, awkwardly follows, is so truthful, it’s like you are in that shop watching. The same when Taylor is writing a song. So painfully slow and precise and yet so real.
If there is a criticism, it feels by the end that So Yong Kim didn’t know what to do with her character and so it doesn’t really satisfy. In any other film, this would have been acceptable but because we have invested in so much time with this character, you feel he deserves more. A tiny criticism, I know but one that, if you see the film, you will fully understand what I mean.
This is a film with heart. It may not zip through at a rate of knots and it won’t be for everyone, especially those who enjoy multiplex popcorn nonsense where things are blowing up every five seconds. Those who want sincere drama that offers intelligence and believability, will be blown away by this small, quiet gem. Just like I was.