So Yong Kim’s Portrait of An Absent Father, ‘For Ellen’

“Please stop. You’re going to make me sad.”
The pivotal moment in So Yong Kim’s heartbreaking portrait of paternal irresponsibility is when the namesake of the film speaks up in a whisper: “Please stop. You’re going to make me sad.” Her father, whom she met for the first time just hours before, fears he may never see her again and hugs her, crying on her shoulder. Ellen is six years old and bravely halts the moment without pointing the finger or raising calling for her mother. She simply tells this man to stop making her feel sad with his sadness, and it brings closure to the story, though I wouldn’t call it the turning-point and it isn’t the end.
After an hour or so of watching Joby Taylor’s (Paul Dano) drunken displays, angry late night revelry, and hopeless, edgy encounters with his wife, lawyer, and former bandmate, he wakes up, washes away his grime in the motel room shower, and sets off to meet the little girl he left behind for a shot at being a rockstar. More so than the moment he decides to blackmail his wife into letting him visit Ellen, the quiet line “you’re making me sad” pushes this devestated character back out the window and into the cold: he messed up, he has no one else to blame, and there is no hope of fixing the situation, and yet here is nothing tragic about him walking away. It is in this selfish, inappropriate encounter, when he sneaks into his biological daughter’s room through the window to ask her what she thinks of him, that she, of all characters, makes it clear that he is a “nice person”, but that he does not fit into her life. He came to the home that was his no longer to find himself, after all- not for Ellen. She helps him and he leaves her for her, this time.
In terms of technical grace, this film is brilliant. The images are smooth, the sound work is subtle, and close-ups are few, which I appreciate. We don’t get those choppy, speed-it-up cuts from one character to the next, but are given time to examine the movement and stillness in the whole of each scene. This low-maintenance style creates a sense of intimacy between viewers and the characters onscreen. The script itself is lovingly bare: the words were carefully chosen, and are powerfully executed. Further, what is not said is shown, without fail: we sense the mother’s influence when Joby is pushing Ellen on the swings- the phone will ring at some point, and he will have to return her- say goodbye. This is not one of those think pieces- no, we know exactly what is happening and we have the time and relationship with the protagonist to care…even if we find him unlikable.
What is fascinating about Dano’s performance is that there is nothing self-pitying about it. He either stands up or falls down, but there is no woe-is-me attitude to weigh down our concerns for the characters we don’t really see, like Jody’s soon to be ex-wife and young daughter. Even what is not shown or spoken is felt, which is certainly a lofty goal for any filmmaker, but one that So Yong Kim has acheived in ‘For Ellen’.
On a note of personal preference, I tend to view films with “female” names with a lot of skepticism, because they are so often endowed with a male protagonist, and the girl character is more of a plot-pusher- moving the film along from various angles as an indirect force. She often exists physically, or in terms of her physicality (the way screen characters talk about her), with no voice. However, this tenderly tough story redeemed itself in my eyes, first by having such a powerfully sparse script- one that really allowed the characters to move and breathe within the space between words, then by giving the strongest line in the film to the namesake herself: “Please stop. You’re going to make me sad.” This and much more is what makes So Yong Kim a masterful filmmaker and writer.

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