** (out of four)
There may be a terrific short film living inside “For Ellen,” writer-director So Yong Kim's drama about rocker Joby Taylor's (Paul Dano) last-ditch effort to connect with his estranged 6-year-old daughter, Ellen (Shaylena Mandigo), as he finalizes his divorce. As is, the first half of the movie feels padded, minimizing character development while repeatedly depicting what an irresponsible bummer Joby is. Obviously that's how he is now; was he ever different, and what's he going to do about it in the long run?
The story only kicks in when Joby finally meets the young girl, his regret and desperate effort melding perfectly with Mandigo's performance. Ellen's never met this guy and doesn't know where he's been, but she's young enough to appreciate what he's doing. It’s a shame, then, that Kim offers so little of the characters, other than the idea that Joby pursued a music career and neglected his wife (Margarita Levieva of “Adventureland”).
Dano fares well, but as written Joby isn’t much of a character. Anyone looking for a more rewarding tale of a musician circling back to see what he's missed while living in the wake of stardom should pick up Jonathan Tropper's “One Last Thing Before I Go.”
It's no surprise when a song by the National closes out “For Ellen,” which is likewise moody and gray and will try the patience of anyone unable to sink into the melancholy rhythms of its storytelling. The difference is that the National build to something powerful; “For Ellen” trails off into the wind.
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