Like So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain and the fine In Between Days, For Ellen is a micro-portrait, less a story than an intimate observation that pays closer attention to a character than anyone else does in his or her life. Here, Paul Dano plays a struggling musician who hurries to snowy upstate from New York City to see his soon-to-be ex-wife (Revenge’s Margarita Levieva) and the daughter of the title (Shaylena Mandigo), whose mother is demanding sole custody. Unlike in her earlier films, Kim has chosen for her lead not just a professional actor, but a bold, committed one in Dano, who tries to portray his character as a mixture of oblivious self-pity and sincere devotion, one who’s suddenly decided to reconnect with the child he’s never shown interest in before.
For Ellen is the kind of film that rises or falls on the strength of its lead performance, given that its protagonist is in every scene, often alone. It’s built around a strong turn by Dano, but one that feels studied and sometimes at odds with the naturalism the film aims for with its grubby settings, loose camerawork, and tendency toward inquisitive close-ups. Dano demonstrates his character’s magnetism while portraying him as a half-pathetic creature, dabbing mascara on his soul patch in a bathroom mirror and getting in a possibly collaboration-ending fight with a bandmate on the phone over their need to add “a little more heart to the songs.” But he feels very much like a movie conception of a failed rock star, not a person, and scenes in which he thrashes to a dive bar to Whitesnake’s “Still Of The Night” or noodles around on his guitar in a wood-paneled motel room call more attention to the actor’s performance than to the character’s.
At least Dano’s scenes with Mandigo are fittingly tentative and sweet, threaded through with the quiet urgency of a man given a limited window to meet and somehow get to know his child. Solemn and uncertain, she slowly opens up to her father, while also seeming to sense the instability in his life. When they have a heart-stopping conversation about whether he should be more in her life, it’s a moment of devastating genuineness in a film that otherwise seems more driven by its basic concept than by credible characters.