For filmmaker Sally Potter her new movie “The Roads Not Taken” came from an intensely personal place. Her brother, musician Nic Potter, died in 2013 following a two year battle with young onset dementia. She pulled from her own emotional experiences caring for him mixed with what she describes as a “preoccupation with the nature of the mind“. This isn’t an autobiography, but it’s clearly something close to Potter’s heart.
Interpreting the film can be a challenge but it turns out to be well worth the effort. The title is the first hint that Potter is doing something unique. This isn’t your standard illness-driven drama and its inquisitive nature might catch some people off-guard. In one sense it is very much a thoughtful examination of neurological disorders and the devastating effects they have on sufferers and family caregivers alike. But it’s also an inquiry into a damaged mind – one that sees memory fragments of two pivotal choices from a man’s past and then wonders how life would be different had he chosen…you know…the roads not taken.
The film opens to the sounds of a ringing phone and a door buzzer. Leo (Javier Bardem), a Mexican immigrant and former writer, lays unresponsive in his cramped Brooklyn apartment. On the phone is his worried daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), at the door his caregiver Xenia (Branka Katić). Leo suffers from an unnamed ailment but it has all the marks of dementia. Molly arrives and lets herself in, relieved to find her father in his bed. And this begins the story which takes place over the course of one grueling day.
Much of the movie focuses on Molly caring for her father – getting him dressed, taking him to doctor appointments, keeping him from wandering off. And the simplest things such as going to the bathroom or getting into a cab, Potter shows to be both physical and emotional challenges. Throughout the day they encounter people who repeatedly refer to Leo is if he wasn’t there. “Can he hear me?” “Does he understand what I’m saying?” Molly, partly out of hope and partly out of denial, takes offense and often lashes out at the implication that her father may be gone. It’s Potter’s way of looking at our treatment of the sick while showing us a young women coming to terms with her father’s condition.
But a chunk of the film takes place inside Leo’s head. Through what initially looks like flashbacks, we see reflections of two key moments from his life. But instead of reliving past events,￼ Leo’s mind is actually piecing together where those paths would have led had he chosen to follow them. It’s an audacious perspective that works far better than I expected.
The first is set in Mexico and wonders what would have happened if he had stayed with the love of his life Delores (Salma Hayak) instead of leaving for America. The second looks at a time when Leo took off for Greece, leaving behind his now ex-wife (Laura Linney) and his infant daughter. What if he had stayed in Greece and finished writing his book instead of returning home to his family?￼
I won’t spoil where either of the two scenarios go, but Potter uses them to offer up plenty of food for thought. Together they can be read as a tragedy, as an elegy on regret, and even as a hopeful meditation if looked at through a certain lens.￼ Most importantly, Potter doesn’t take her subject matter lightly. While maybe not as visceral as the father and daughter narrative, these scenes shed some light on who Leo was. It’s not always flattering but it is illuminating, filling in the lines of his character while slyly earning our empathy and scorn at the same time.
Potter’s movie leans heavily on its two lead performances, both dramatically different but equally essential. Bardem’s long face and dark, weary eyes convey a perpetual state of lostness. It’s a carefully calculated performance that sees the actor plowing some of the same somber, melancholy ground that earned him in an Oscar nomination for “Biutiful”. Fanning continues to get better and better, here giving a performance rich with depth and maturity. Molly’s story is just as heartbreaking as Leo’s and you can see her optimism crumbling through Fanning’s gripping portrayal.
In addition to writing and directing, Potter (a composer herself) wrote the score and was a co-editor for what must have been a cathartic undertaking. I can see where her personal approach could push some people away. Perhaps one-half of the film is built more on hope rather than science/medicine. Maybe it does challenge us to look past the eyes and into the soul. But for me, that’s when some of the deeper questions Potter poses came into focus. And that’s when I knew I really loved her movie.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS