The Roads Not Taken is a 2020 drama from director Sally Potter, starring Javier Bardem and Elle Fanning. It is a tragic and painfully heartbreaking story of a writer with early-onset dementia, that sadly doesn’t quite fully realise its potential.
The film follows Leo (Javier Bardem), a writer with early-onset dementia living in a grim apartment next to the subway in New York City. After suffering from a stroke alongside his dementia, Leo is unable to speak properly and has limited cognition and mobility. He’s reliant on a carer (Branka Katic) and his adult daughter Molly (Elle Fanning). We meet Leo during one particularly chaotic day, that begins with him lying in an almost catatonic state in bed while his daughter and carer frantically try to reach him on the phone and at the front door. Eventually, they gain access and go about preparing Leo for his day, while Leo himself remains in bed where we soon realise his mind is elsewhere. We flit from his apartment in New York to a bedroom in Mexico, where he lies in bed with Dolores (Salma Hayek), his first love. Later, we also see Leo alone in Greece, where he fled to escape his marriage and daughter to concentrate on his writing career.
We follow Leo and Molly through their day, which involves a traumatic and distressing trip to the dentist, all the while Leo is living these two alternate lives within his own mind. We see how actions and words from his alternate lives, that make perfect sense in those moments, filter through into Leo’s real-life as confused and garbled nonsense. On the way to the optometrist, Leo bangs his head whilst trying to quickly exit a taxi, which results in a trip to the emergency room where we meet his ex-wife and Molly’s mum (Laura Linney), who fills us in on some of Leo’s history that provides background for the alternate lives he’s currently living. As he leaves the ER in the care of Molly, we see more of Leo’s alternate lives as they unfold and also see the distressing effects his condition has on his daughter and her own life.
The most engaging aspect about The Roads Not Taken is the performances, most notably Elle Fanning. Her portrayal of a devoted daughter denying her father’s condition and trying to give him a normal life is heartbreaking to watch and incredibly moving. You can see the pain and emotion etched across her face in every scene, and you really feel for the character Molly when her own life begins to unravel at the cost of caring for her father. Javier Bardem too puts in an admirable turn as Leo, although I felt like Leo as a character was let down by the plot. You care more about his daughter than you do about him, especially when you realise that he’s living in alternate lives where Molly isn’t there.
It’s these alternate realities that let this film down. The main story of Leo and Molly’s reality in NYC is engaging and engrossing, even if it’s is incredibly distressing and heart-wrenching. However, Leo’s alternate lives are poorly thought out and really quite lacklustre, almost verging on boring. His life in Greece especially brings nothing other than backstory to Leo’s past and there’s little cohesiveness in general between all of his realities. These separate lives only lead to us feeling less for Leo as a character.
The Roads Not Taken is an incredibly distressing and emotional take on dementia, with some stunning and moving performances. However, the inclusion of Leo living alternate lives in his mind simply serves to detract from the much more engaging main story of a daughter coping with her father’s deteriorating condition, which would have made for a much better film.
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