'For Ellen': A Father's Long Road

Quiet and smart, this movie is punctuated by scenes that are as exquisite as they are uncomfortable.

For Ellen

Director: So Yong Kim
Cast: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Shaylena Mandigo
Rated: NR
Studio: Tribeca Film
Year: 2012
US date: 2012-09-05 (Limited release)

"That doesn’t make any sense. I thought we were splitting everything." Seated across from his lawyer in a diner, Joby (Paul Dano) is astounded to hear that the divorce papers he's been asked to sign mean he'll give up his rights to "the child." Joby's a musician, he spends a lot of time on the road, and he doesn't read legalese. So he's surprised when Fred (Jon Heder) explains the agreement. "You're the lawyer," Joby sputters, "Isn’t there something you can do?"

Actually, no, there's nothing that Fred can do. And until this moment, early in For Ellen, Joby hasn't cared much about what might be done, or had much contact with the child, six-year-old Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo). He drove all night from a gig with his unnamed band in an unnamed town to meet with his ex, Claire (Margarita Levieva), along with both their lawyers. On screen, that drive begins in darkness, the road ahead for Joby, literally and figuratively, a double-arrow road sign coming briefly into focus in his headlights. Cut inside to his profile, barely visible until he lights a cigarette. When morning comes, he's still driving, his window steamed and his chin hair wispy. He holds a half-eaten wrap sandwich, his fingerless black gloves revealing his black-painted fingernails. He drops it, then fumbles.

When the camera cuts to the car on the road, it's skidding into a snow bank, anonymous, probably sad, but hardly tragic. When Joby calls for a tow, he's impatient, pacing and flailing his arms when whoever it is on the other end hangs up. The camera looks on from a distance as he stomps away, slides on the icy pavement and into more snow.

Apart from a couple of curse words, Joby doesn’t have much to say, now or later, when he confronts Claire and the lawyers. Though he's the singer for his band, and sees himself as generally important for that reason ("I've been thinking about the tracks," he tells a bandmate over the phone, as if trying to take control over some part of his existence, "And I think we have to start re-tracking, it's not working"), For Ellen -- opening 5 September at Film Forum -- provides him with precious little context. The road stretches before and after him, the snow piled to the sides, but he could be anywhere, really, where trucks plow roads in winter. The emptiness speaks to his history, unseen and unspecified, and also to his future, which he can't imagine.

Joby is forced to think about a future, any future, when he thinks about Ellen. He hasn't seen her, but not being able to see her, by law, that's jarring. And so, after he rages at Claire in the parking lot outside their meeting ("Get the fuck out of here... fucking cunt"), he presses Fred, asking for another chance, another option, even as he's run out of them. At last Joby comes to a notion, that he might spend time with Ellen, that she might see him. He calls Fred -- Joby is on the phone a lot in For Ellen, a series of close images of him alone that make clear his disconnection -- to ask for the time. Fred asks a question, and Joby's caught out: "I don’t know, man, like hang out, like do stuff that a father and daughter do."

You're not nearly surprised that Joby has no idea what that stuff would be. He does get a chance to meet with Ellen, picking her up at Claire's lawyer's, allowed to see her for a couple of hours ("She has a piano lesson this afternoon"). And so Joby sets to hanging out, to beginning to comprehend what Ellen might do. The meeting is painful at first, Ellen patient and tentative, assessing him. She doesn’t know what she wants to do, he can't guess ("Little girls like ponies, right? You don't like ponies?"). The camera cuts from one face to the other, as he crouches to look into her eyes, or leans over the table where they sit in a food court. When he takes her into a store to buy a present, the camera splits the difference, leveled at his torso, her head barely in frame.

Throughout Ellen and Joby's outing -- and then again when he comes to her bedroom, pleading at her window to be let in --you see how they see things differently, even as neither can quite articulate how they do. The fact that Ellen's view is as vital to For Ellen as Joby's recalls director So Yong Kim's previous feature, the astounding Treeless Mountain, which focused on two Korean girls trying to sort out being abandoned by their mother. Here again, close mobile frames limit contexts in any given scene, and also draw you into moments, time rushing forward even as it seems to stand still. As Ellen watches her father in her bedroom, after she's let him in against her mother's instructions, her face is quiet and careful. He begins to plead, apparently comprehending his loss, wondering, he says, "How you feel about me."

It's a hard question for a six-year-old, one she reformulates so she can answer. "Well," she sums up, "I can't call you dad." Claire's getting married to someone else, Ellen reports, and she's supposed to call him "dad." This is news for Joby, who has made it his business not to now anything about Claire, to keep addled and antic on the road, to perform himself until he can't recognize himself. His "hanging out" with Ellen lurches from childish delight to utter awkwardness: another long shot has him pushing her on a swing, in the snow, her laughter layered onto traffic sounds; when he bids her goodbye in her bedroom, he fills and obscures the frame as he leans in to hug her, a shot that lets you know just how daunting this large blundering figure looks to a person so small. She keeps herself together for this adult she's not calling da, waits a beat as he holds her, then makes her case for a bit of air: "You're making me feel sad."

It's a terrific scene, as exquisite as it is uncomfortable. The child has a life apart from Joby, a life he will never know, and even as she asks him to explain his own, specifically, why he didn't see her before, he can't begin. "I wanted to make it so bad," he says. And when she asks whether he did, he mumbles: "Yeah, I think I'm real close, yeah, for sure," a string of words that can't make sense together, but they're as near as he can manage.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.