For Ellen

3 out of 5 stars
For Ellen

Stunted in both life and career, punk rock musician Joby Taylor (Dano) is at a crossroads—a literal one at the start of So Yong Kim’s often perceptive, ultimately disappointing drama. The first, somewhat heavy-handed image of a two-way traffic road sign spells out the character’s deep-rooted moral dilemma: Which way do I go? Joby is driving through the snowy night to an upstate New York town where he’s supposed to sign legal documents and give up custody of his young daughter, Ellen (affectingly natural newcomer Mandigo). But upon arrival, he begins to have second thoughts about surrendering his parental rights.

Kim (Treeless Mountain) mostly avoids indie-cliché pitfalls for the first hour, and her use of wintry landscapes as counterpoint to Jody’s crises of conscience is practically Bergman level. She coaxes a superb performance from Dano as a man who can’t alter his erratic trajectory, even when trying to do the right thing; his spastic bar dance to Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night” is a revelatory mix of mental breakdown and emotional catharsis. Unfortunately, Kim nearly wrecks the film’s observational acuteness with a climax that shamelessly steals from Bob Rafelson’s classic blue-collar drama Five Easy Pieces, and this faux-gut-punch finale feels haphazardly sutured on rather than arrived at organically. Guess that ham-fisted opening shot was a sign of things to come.

Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich

By: Keith Uhlich


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