The introduction of a male protagonist, after two fascinating films centered on young women and girls attuning themselves to shifts in cultural identity and social geography, is the first thing you notice about So Yong Kim's quiet and often lovely third feature, For Ellen. More importantly, it's the first time that the South Korean-born filmmaker has placed a professional actor, Paul Dano, at the forefront of her film. He plays the absentee rocker-father of the titular pre-adolescent, and the difference between Dano and the surprisingly adept non-professionals who carried Kim's past films is at once fascinating and a bit disappointing. For however oddly modest, consistent, and admirable Dano's performance is, it nevertheless robs the film of a graceful spontaneity that helped make Kim's last project, the sublime Treeless Mountain, so memorable.
This isn't a bad thing in the grand scheme of things, especially considering the film's sly ambition. Joby (Dano) arrives on screen already neck-deep in the responsibilities that both the girls in Treeless Mountain and the burgeoning young woman of In Between Days are still learning to come to grips with, as he's both the leader of a semi-known rock band and a father. He's better at the former than the latter, but only marginally. At one point, he ducks out of a gig with little notice to take a trip to upstate New York, in the hopes of visiting the daughter he never met or really gave a thought about. His ex (Margarita Levieva) refuses to speak to him, so Joby is forced to work closely with his lawyer, Fred (Jon Heder), to find some way of meeting his daughter before the settlement agreement of his divorce makes him null and void, parentally speaking.
As part of the agreement, Joby receives half of the cost of the home he shared with his ex-wife, in return for granting her sole custody, and it's clear that his decisions are driven by fiscal needs, brought on by a lifetime of following his impulses freely, even fanatically. His art remains his singular passion, but the threat that he'll never be a substantial part of his daughter's life, and for nothing more than a mediocre music career, comes on like a death sentence. It suggests a violent discourse between actual and perceived accomplishment in Joby, perfectly encapsulated by Joby's extended fit of impassioned gesticulations to a metal song in a dingy bar. Fred watches on in a mix of discomfort and awe, and it's made plainly clear that Fred's interest in going the extra mile for Joby is at least partially due to seeing and knowing how passionate he is about his art form.
Kim grew up with her mother after her parents got divorced and her father left, and there's a sense in the central conflict that the writer-director is melding her experiences as a parent with her experiences as a child engaging with parents. In this, Shaylena Mandigo's performance as Ellen proves especially compelling, as she expresses both worried apprehension and forgiving comfort toward Joby as they size each other up during the two hours of visiting time they're allotted. The film's crucial scene is their elongated conversation in the food court of a local mall, in which we witness both of them settling into their roles of father and daughter with a sad sense of the fleetingness of their relationship. They're frank and awkward with one another, and Kim never allows sentimentality to take precedence over sincerity. This rigorous lack of saccharine emoting is most prevalent in Joby, whose future Kim smartly leaves ambiguous, but the director also evades the tempting impulse to condescend or judge her central character. Dano's performance, in this sense, is crucial in measuring out Joby's self-pitying with an impressive exactness, eschewing obnoxiousness and the inevitable specter of a formulaic sinner-to-saint story.
Kim's direction remains ruminative, even poetic, in its pacing, its sense of place, and its approach to intimacy, but For Ellen is by some measure Kim's most unsuitable script. The urgency with which Joby, Fred, Ellen, and Joby's girlfriend (Jena Malone) speak of time belies the slow, observational drip of Kim's direction, and she relies on familiar spaces to invoke Joby's growing alienation: motel rooms, bars, largely snow-caked parking lots, and empty cars. The immediacy of Joby's predicament doesn't interest Kim nearly as much as the philosophical impasse it leaves her hero in, and the imbalance makes the narrative feeler lighter, more distant than her previous works. But, ultimately, For Ellen is a film about compromise, specifically those we choose to make in the pursuit of wisdom and humanity, and if it does nothing else, it at the very least suggests that Kim isn't a filmmaker content to leave well enough alone when it comes to her craft.