An occasionally moving portrait of a failed musician starring Paul Dano
So Yong Kim's modest, fitfully moving third feature launches us straight into the middle of a divorce. Joby Taylor (Paul Dano) is a struggling musician, the frontman of the appallingly monikered Snake Trouble. As the film begins, he's driving through the night, on his way to meet his ex-wife Claire (a near mute Margarita Levieva) to finalise their divorce. During the ensuing, tense proceedings he's represented by wide-eyed lawyer Fred Butler (Jon Heder - a.k.a. Napoleon Dynamite) who's impressed by Joby's lifestyle and later attempts to befriend him. Although Joby is initially willing to sign the divorce papers without quarrel, when he realises he's being asked to forfeit custody of his daughter Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo) he has a crisis of conscience and resists.
Although little is explicitly stated, the characters' back-story is effectively communicated - yet it's difficult to truly care. For Ellen is a film about characters who've fallen out of love, or who've become strangers and, though it's beautifully shot, for the most part it plays out in an emotional vacuum. The supporting players are well cast but have too little screen time and dialogue to make an impression. Yes, this is Joby's story but - despite a credibly frazzled performance from Dano - he's an isolated, self-pitying figure who makes for a challenging protagonist. However, the sequences where Joby tentatively bonds with a daughter he doesn't know are achingly tender, giving us a glimpse of the film this might have been.
Limited release from Fri 15 Feb.