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Sundance Film Festival 2012: For Ellen and The House I Live In

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Sundance Film Festival 2012: <em>For Ellen</em> and <em>The House I Live In</em>

So Yong Kim’s latest feature, For Ellen, while certainly not an abject failure, is a disappointment nevertheless, and may cause concern to all those to whom the director’s 2006 debut, In Between Days, was as dear as it remains to this writer. The story concerns a no-good, conspicuously disheveled rock singer, Joby (Paul Dano), who redeems his longstanding neglect of his five-year-old daughter by bonding with her on the eve of divorcing her mom. Joby’s hectic, self-centered lifestyle is rendered in a succession of predominantly shallow-focused long takes of observational persistence as daring as it is tiresome.

Kim’s deliberate diluting of dramatic elements of the plot to the point of its near-obliteration, so highly effective in the case of In Between Days, yields rather emaciated results in For Ellen. The reason is that there’s a barely concealed generic mechanism at play here, built upon a trite premise of a prodigal father slowly winning back the affection of a cute neglected child by means of spontaneously shared fun. Even if Kim may wince at the comparison, she’s not that far from mushy Kramer vs. Kramer territory when Dano wells up at the sight of his cute lil’ girl banging out a garbled version of Für Elise on her electric piano.

The clash of rancid sentimentalism and an almost anti-narrative filming approach causes the film to snap in half pretty early on—and no amount thoughtful acting (or inspired voodoo-like dancing) by Dano can truly patch things up. What’s even worse, as if in an act of directorial desperation mirroring the main character’s moodiness, Kim chooses to blatantly lift her coda from Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, thus opting for a pasted-on ending that has little to do with anything that went on beforehand. It’s not that the movie lacks an organizing sensibility to argue with (it is most certainly something), but it doesn’t overcome its central incongruity in a way that would be compelling enough to forgive its flaws.

The House I Life InEugene Jarecki’s new documentary, The House I Live In, is a rousingly aching piece of social analysis and commentary that gets under one’s skin not by means of Michael Moore-like rib-poking, but thanks to its sheer thoughtfulness and a clever autobiographical hook. Jarecki starts off by reflecting on the life of his African-American nanny, who lost her son to drugs and AIDS around the time she began to spend more time with the Jarecki family. In shifting his own personal focus to reveal the beloved figure of his childhood as a mere idealized construct hiding an ugly class fracture of American society, The House I Live In plays almost like a real-life sequel to The Help, with all the schmaltz happily carved out.

Jarecki’s main concern is the American war on drugs, which he sees as a class-based war of the capitalist society against its own poor (the movie could almost share a title with the director’s previous documentary hit, Why We Fight). Aided by a string of venerable and lucid interviewees, he builds a (mostly) credible case in a multi-directional fashion, following disparate threads simultaneously, only to tie them all into a rhetorical knot at the very end.

In his scrupulous indictment of racially biased legislation (founded on disproportionate treatment of powder cocaine and crack), corporate nature of the ever-growing prison business, and incongruously high sentences for nonviolent meth pushing, Jarecki is both compassionate and myopic. By the end of the film, as a highly debatable parallel between the war on drugs and the Holocaust is being drawn by Jarecki and supported by no other than David Simon, one has the impression that prisons are literally devoid of violent dealers and dangerous users, and instead serve to enslave more and more honest citizens that just happened to be poor and unlucky enough to get caught. Conspicuous by their absence are those impoverished people who somehow manage to steer clear of drug-related trouble, and thus don’t fit into the picture of the all-out class war the documentary so compellingly presents. The tinge of paranoia that becomes palpable near the end doesn’t invalidate all points made thus far, but will certainly have those opposed to the lines of Jarecki’s thinking clam up and dismiss the movie as populist and disingenuous. It would be a real shame, for it poses a number of pertinent questions that go beyond drug issues and in fact examine the very foundation of America’s legal and social order.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 19—29.