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There seems to be a bit of a low budget, indie film renaissance in New York (or should I say “Brooklyn”) right now, sparked off by Kelly Reichardt’s incredible body of work from Old Joy, through Wendy and Lucy to Meek’s Cutoff, and including Kenneth Lonergan’s underappreciated Margaret, Sean Durkin’s wonderfully unsettling Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene, Martha, and Rahmin Bahrani’s neo-realist Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo. Amongst this crowd of independent filmmakers, So Yong Kim is a wonderful new voice on the block, along with her husband Bradley Rust Gray who made the Nouvelle Vague-ish The Exploding Girl (which stars Paul Dano’s wife Zoe Kazan).
The Korean-American director is becoming well known for films tackling absent parents and placeless children looking for somewhere to belong. Treeless Mountain (2008) is a stunning and moving account of two small children abandoned by their parents. Set in Korea, the film’s quietly observed fading innocence uses Kim’s detached style to great effect. The revelations in that film are understated and all the more powerful for it. I wish I could say the same for her latest film, For Ellen, but the coolness here comes across as blank and unremarkable rather than emotional.
The film’s story is a simple one: a father (Paul Dano) is in the process of a divorce from his estranged wife (Margarita Levieva). He meets his six-year-old daughter (Shaylena Mandingo) for the first time and develops pangs over the thought of signing paperwork that will take her from his life forever. By examining the fallout from an absent parent, Kim’s two films share a narrative element. Where they diverge is in their perspective. For Ellen is told from the point of view of the father, whereas Treeless Mountain filters the children’s incomprehension and wonder at their tragic situation through their own eyes, thus making for a remarkable piece of work. We feel as lost as they do.
Although Paul Dano delivers a committed performance in For Ellen, his character is not quite believable. The rock-and-roller image – with chipped black nail polish, slicked back hair and leather regalia – is a cliché that has become a lazy way of injecting a sense of hipness into films. Dano’s bland character comes over as self-satisfied and vain whilst also showing vulnerability and kindness. At times this paradox is well played out, but because he is trapped in a stereotype, there is no room for him to grow. He is stymied along with our enjoyment. Despite this emptiness, there are some wonderful moments in this film, and Kim uses the bleak, bleached out wintry landscape of the American-Canadian border beautifully to give the film a sense of timelessness and an almost terrifying sense of infinite nothingness.
Although Dano is the “name” in the film – his presence helped the director secure funding – it is the non-actor Shaylena Mandingo’s performance as the eponymous Ellen that is worth the admission price. She brings a luminosity to the screen and a sure-footed confidence to her performance. In interviews, Kim has talked about what is arguably the best scene in the film, where Dano and Mandingo go into a toyshop together. The director had given Mandingo a starting point and an endpoint and told her which toy to pick up. The rest was up to her. The scene runs for four and a half minutes and is full of suspense, subtlety, humour, awkwardness and a played-down tragedy which feels lacking elsewhere in the film.
So Yong Kim’s ability for directing children, as seen in Treeless Mountain, is at the heart of For Ellen. Perhaps it is because she lets children “be” rather than making them “perform” that allows her to get such memorable performances. Mandingo’s clear, open face, which manages to be at once questioning and knowing, contrasts with Dano’s mumbled overacting. It is if his every move has been rehearsed and re-rehearsed until any freshness has been squeezed out of it. Perhaps this is intentional and Kim is actually aiming for a performance as flat and cold as the North American landscape, but it feels as though she is hoping the viewer might find depth in this frozen, shallow pond.
For Ellen is a pure Sundance darling and well worth seeking out. Its opening scene has all the tropes of a contemporary, small-scale American film: a guy in a car at night on the open road smoking a cigarette and listening to the radio, which is blaring out some ubiquitous Whitesnake-like heavy metal. The terrain explored in this smoky, grainy opening has a familiarity about it that seeps into the rest of the film. But this is also the inherent problem. It is just too comfortable; it’s Raymond Carver light. So Yong Kim is too good a director to be aiming for simple comfort using the well-worn tropes of Americana. You get the sense she is aiming for profundity through an accumulation of small, quietly played out scenes. Sadly these don’t build up to much. What we are left with are memories of melting snow and endless cigarette smoke. Over time they begin to take on the mantle of metaphor for what is at the film’s heart: smoke and water and not quite enough substance.