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