By Don Simpson | February 24, 2013
Director: So Yong Kim
Writer: So Yong Kim
Starring: Paul Dano, Jon Heder, Shaylena Mandigo, Jena Malone, Margarita Levieva, Dakota Johnson, Alex Mauriello
When we first meet Joby (Paul Dano), he is driving on snow-covered rural roads. His long black hair, make-up and clothing all suggest that Joby might be in some sort of heavy metal band. When Joby stops at a gas station to touch up his make-up, we can only assume that he is on his way to a concert. Instead he drives up to a modest business office where his wife (Margarita Levieva) is waiting with her lawyer to finalize their divorce paperwork.
From that opening sequence, we know full well that writer-director So Yong Kim’s (In Between Days, Treeless Mountain) portrayal of Joby is not going to be the standard cinematic stereotype of a heavy metal musician. Joby is an intriguing character study of a walking and talking contradiction: equally conceited-yet-vulnerable, awkward-yet-charismatic, thoughtful-yet-dumb. Joby may have chosen the life of an absentee husband and father for several years in favor of becoming a rock star, but the divorce paperwork stacked in front of him serves as a wake-up call. Suddenly, with the custody of his six-year-old daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) on the line, Joby decides to buck-up and try to establish a relationship with her. At the risk of screwing up his musical career, Joby puts everything on hold in order to have a chance to spend some quality time with Ellen.
For Ellen is the sweet and tender tale of a hooligan who has made a lot of self-centered decisions in his life; now, Joby must pay the price for his selfish lifestyle. I have read a few negative posts about the way For Ellen ends, but I find the ambiguity to be beautifully reflective. Fitting of his character, Joby opts for self-punishment, but we do not quite know what that means. Maybe Joby finally realizes that he needs time and space to contemplate his past in order to not repeat the cycle of self-destruction?
Paul Dano’s performance as Joby might just be one of his best (to date), which says a hell of a lot. Like a masterful Method actor, Dano delves deep inside this morally conflicted character who has just plowed headfirst into an existential snow drift. Joby spends a lot of time just spinning his wheels in solitude, drowning his problems in alcohol; whenever he is around other people, Joby is socially-awkward (unless, of course, booze and loud music are involved). When it comes down to it, just having the opportunity to observe the subtle details as Dano interacts with Shaylena Mandigo and Jon Heder (who is almost unrecognizable as Joby’s lawyer) is worth the price of admission (or rental).