Sally Potter's THE ROADS NOT TAKEN follows a day in the life of Leo (Javier Bardem) and his daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning) as she grapples with the challenges of her father's chaotic mind. As they weave their way through New York City, Leo's journey takes on a hallucinatory quality as he floats through alternate lives he could have lived, leading Molly to wrestle with her own path as she considers her future.
There was originally another story set in New York where Bardem and Chris Rock played lovers, but when Sally Potter was editing the movie, and admittedly much to her dismay, she didn't feel it clicked with the rest of the movie so she cut out those scenes. See more »
If you like your movies action packed you are going to dislike this movie. If you like light and uplifting stories you are going to positively loathe this one! For everyone else, "The Roads Not Taken" is a very thought-provoking piece of film-making from writer/director Sally Potter that I have a lot of respect for. Even more so, since I learned that the film is based on the director's time caring for her now deceased brother Nic, diagnosed with early onset dementia in 2010.
It's not a promising premise. "The Roads Not Taken" concerns a New Yorker with dementia being taking to the dentist and the opticians. Gripped yet? Nope... didn't think so. But stay with me here.
Elle Fanning plays Molly, daughter of the almost catatonic Leo (Javier Bardem) who is receiving a lot of support to stay in his own home. As his daughter assists him on his trip to his medical appointments, he is only about 10% 'there'. Glassy-eyed and almost incomprehensible, his utterances are often taken to refer to his present experiences. But actually, he's 90% somewhere else, revisiting two key episodes in his past life and reacting in the real world to what's happening in his dreams.
As he relives 'the roads not taken' we can piece together the elements of a life that's lived and - perhaps - lay out some elements that might have contributed to his mental decline in later life.
Before we plunge into the doom and gloom of the story, there was one moment of levity for me in the opening titles. I commented in my review of "The Farewell" that the company 'dog-tags' at the start of the film reminded me of a famous Family Guy comic moment. But this is kindergarten level compared to this movie. I assume Sally Potter must have tapped her complete phone contacts list to raise the funding for this one! Since I counted FOURTEEN different production companies referenced! Is this a record?
As you enter later life, it's common for many of us to suffer a significant source of stress. Sometimes - if you're lucky - four sources of stress. The reason? You stop worrying about your kids as much and start worrying about your aged parents and in-laws. Like heating up a frog in water, it's often imperceptible how much stress you are actually carrying with that until the last of the relatives 'shuffles off this mortal coil'. Within the grief, there's also a source of guilty relief in there somewhere. Such is the maelstrom that young Molly is in - with knobs on - given the disability of Leo. As a professional in her 20's, she is also having the juggle this responsibility with progressing her career.
It's a bit early in this turbulent year to talk of Oscar nominations. But for me, there are three standout performances in this movie:
1) Javier Bardem: what an acting masterclass! As with Daniel Day-Lewis's win in 1990 for "My Left Foot", the Academy loves a disability-based performance. I haven't seen much Oscar-buzz about this performance, but I'd personally throw his hat into the ring, for at least my long-list;
2) Elle Fanning: this young lady has been in movies since the age of 2, but rose to stardom with "Super 8". She's building a formidable filmography behind her. Here she matches Bardem shot-for-shot in the acting stakes: a caring daughter being emotionally torn apart; always needing to be in two places at the same time (as nicely positioned by the cryptic ending). A first Oscar-nomination perhaps?
3) Robbie Ryan: with an Oscar-nom previously for "The Favourite", could another one follow for this? For this is a beautiful film to look at, despite its downbeat story. There are some drop-dead gorgeous shots. One in particular is where a sun-lit Fanning has a "Marilyn Monroe subway skirt moment" at a window (with her hair being blown, I should add). Glorious. And all of the Mexican/Greek scenes (all Spain I believe) are deliciously lit and coloured.
"The Roads Not Taken" is an intelligent watch for sure, and reminiscent to me of Almodovar's "Pain and Glory": another artist's life lived again in flashback. If anything, this one is more unstructured in setting out a box of jigsaw pieces that you need to piece together through the unreliable narrator's random memories. ("Ooh, look - here's a bit with Laura Linney on it... ah, that goes there"; "So that's who Selma Hayek is"; etc.) But, as with a jigsaw, staying the course and putting the last pieces in is a very satisfying experience.
There's also a really feelgood scene in a taxi rank that restores your faith in the underlying goodness of people.... and a rant by a "Trump-voter" that gives you quite the opposite view!
Where I found some frustration was in the lack of backstory for Molly. She seems to be painted rather two-dimensionally. Yes - young with job, but of her personal life we see nothing. Adding another dimension (a young family for example) would have added yet another set of stresses to the mix. Leo's flashbacks are also focused on just two time periods. More wide-ranging reminiscences might have broadened the drama.
But I personally found "The Roads Not Taken" intensely moving. I'm not sure I could say I "enjoyed" it, but it is a worthy watch and has left me with thought-provoking images to chew on.
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