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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Sundance Review: For Ellen

So Yong Kim (In Between Days, Treeless Mountain) is back at Sundance this year with For Ellen, a quiet, meticulously paced character study about Joby (Paul Dano), a would-be rock star , who takes a road trip back to the small midwest town where his soon-to-be ex and young daughter live so that he can sign divorce papers. Joby needs the financial settlement the divorce will give him in order to finish his latest album — which he sees as his last chance to make it or break it. Upon his arrival, though, he learns that his inept attorney (Jon Heder) has negotiated a settlement that will require him to give up all rights to the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was a baby. Faced with this choice, Joby’s suddenly he’s not so sure what he wants.

Kim has a patience as a director for allowing her characters to draw us in slowly but surely; she steers clear of emotional manipulation and even particularly structured plot points, and gives her actors room to just be — an approach that can be dicey depending on the talent, but that works very well here with Dano in the lead role. Cinematographer Reed Morano, who previously shot Frozen River, puts her talents to good use here as well. Like Frozen River, For Ellen is set in the winter, and long, slow shots of the cold, frozen Midwest landscape serve to evoke the emotional state of the characters: Joby, who’s struggling with whether it’s too late to connect with the daughter he abandoned; his ex Claire (Margarita Lievieva), whose painfully walled off emotional disconnect is a much more interesting way of conveying their personal history than any weighty expositional back story would have been, and Claire and Joby’s daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), who eyes the sudden appearance of her father in her life with wary, curious watchfulness.

The lean script doesn’t invest a lot of energy on overt character development or history, nor does Kim guide her audience one way or another, particularly, in determining how they should feel about Joby. Joby’s just a guy like a lot of guys, who wasn’t ready for fatherhood; he had to make a choice between life on the road as a musician, or living in this stifling small town with his wife and daughter, and when it came down to it he chose to take what he saw as a singular opportunity to pursue the career he wanted.

This sparseness of back story makes Joby more relatable, and at least empathetic, if not entirely sympathetic. He is what he is: not the father Claire would have had him be; not the father Ellen would like him to be. Joby’s the guy who likes to be on the road, who darkens his soul patch with mascara in gas station bathrooms and drinks too much in too many cheap hotel rooms, not the guy who’s going to be there for his daughter’s piano recitals and skinned knees. But he’s also a musician, an artist feeling keenly his inability to break through to find success in the way he wants it, and that’s certainly something that anyone who aspires to take a chance and create rather than just do a mundane job to pay the bills can relate to. Artistic pursuit almost always requires some kind of sacrifice, and Joby’s made life choices that have already defined his path.

The press notes indicate that Kim created this story to explore her feelings about her own absent father, so in that sense perhaps she wanted to keep it a bit more abstract to allow room for individual interpretation, rather that spinning out a more specific story that judges her protagonist one way or another. Joby’s not quite a hero, not quite an antihero. He’s simply a mirror against which our own ideas of parenthood and responsibility refract, which for me, makes For Ellen a million times better than stories of a similar theme that try to tell us precisely what to think.

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2 Responses to “Sundance Review: For Ellen”

  1. John says:

    Seriously? This movie was like watching paint dry. Awful. Do we really need to watch 22 second establishing shots and Dano smoking a cigarette alone for 5 minutes? Ummm… you just wanted to act like you “got it.” And “it” was a piece of crap.

  2. Kim Voynar says:


    I doubt very much that you know me well enough to know whether I like a film or don’t. And frankly, if you’re accusing me of writing a positive review of any film because I care whether anyone thinks I “got it,” you’re completely unfamiliar with my work. Your unwarranted accusation about my motivation doesn’t merit much more response than this:

    “Seriously? This movie was meticulous, patient, and intelligent. Brilliant. The confidence it takes for a director to hold on a 22 second shot, or stay with a lone character smoking a cigarette for an extended take, especially when dealing with a generation of moviegoers who lack the patience to so much as wait 5 seconds between cool explosions? Fantastic. Ummmm … you just don’t “get it,” sorry. Because “it” was brilliant.”

    In all seriousness, though: Personally, the only issue I had with this film is that the last 60 seconds is a rip of Five Easy Pieces. Actually, the last 5 minutes or so is, but I liked the film overall a great deal up until that last minute.

    But for the record, I also liked Elena, Father’s Chair, 28 Hotel Rooms, and Valley of Saints this year at Sundance, all of which are films with pacing that a lot of folks would perhaps consider akin to “watching paint dry.” And I’m generally a fan of directors like Claire Denis, Kelly Reichardt, and yes, So Yong Kim, who tend to work in slow, patient shots rather than pandering to an audience that can’t sit still for anything longer than a fast jump cut. So it’s likely we’re going to have to just agree to disagree on this one.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon