Existential road dramas about burned-out rock stars are practically an official movie genre by now. Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” kicked off the most recent run, and “This Must Be the Place,” in which Sean Penn plays a goth rocker with Cure frontman Robert Smith’s hair and makeup, comes out in November. Landing in the middle, and fresh off the festival circuit, is “For Ellen,” the first English-language film from South Korean-born director So Yong Kim. Like its predecessors, it has a sense of drift that both vexes and beguiles.
Raised partly in Los Angeles, Kim’s a curious case of a filmmaker with one foot in foreign cinema and the other planted firmly in the US indie landscape, and “For Ellen,” which was filmed in the wintry environs of upstate New York, has a distinct sense of place. But the director is asking a lot of audiences to accept Paul Dano as an egotistical hard-rock singer. The actor specializes, often wonderfully, in tremulous passive-aggressiveness, and he’s so pale and uncertain he haunts his own movies like a ghost.
“For Ellen” asks us to buy him as Joby Taylor, a tattooed train wreck who’s on the outs with his bandmates and who drives into a small town to sign divorce papers with a long-estranged wife (Margarita Levieva). From what little we learn, Joby’s band had one successful album followed by years of rancor; at best, he’s a demigod given to whining and temper tantrums. When Dano throws a fit, though, he seems like Axl Rose after a cold shower; there’s no weight to his fury. Even the obligatory goatee seems glue-sticked on.
Why should we care? Because Kim wants us to see Joby through other people: the unforgiving mask of the ex-wife, the sweet naivete of his inexperienced young lawyer (Jon Heder, finally leaving Napoleon Dynamite in the rear-view mirror), especially the clear, exacting blue eyes of Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), the 6-year-old daughter he’ll be signing away his rights to.
Kim knows how to work with children, as anyone knows who saw the heartbreaking 2008 film “Treeless Mountain,” about two South Korean sisters abandoned by their mother. She’s able to see things from their level, without corn or condescension, and she trusts their take on the adult world. So when Ellen says to Joby, early on in the two-hour visit his ex-wife’s lawyer has allowed, “Why didn’t you come see me before?” he and we are speared by her directness. He doesn’t have much of an answer, and, in that instant, Joby understands his failure.
The two scenes the father and daughter have together are the heart of “For Ellen,” and they’re tender and observant and funny and utterly without adornment. Something about Mandigo’s gravity brings Dano’s performance down to earth; for once Joby has to respond to someone.
Elsewhere this semi-plotted film indulges in an open-endedness that yaws between the pretty and the pretentious — Reed Morano’s scuffed yet poetic cinematography is a high point — and the ending lifts the final scenes of 1970’s “Five Easy Pieces,” either because Kim wants to pay homage or because she thinks we’ve forgotten it. Nothing here, of course, conveys the conflicted life force of Jack Nicholson in that movie. But I’m not sure even Nicholson could get us to feel Joby’s raw panic and pain the way Dano does in those two short scenes. “For Ellen” tries one’s patience, but what works, works for keeps.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.