At face value, Sally Potter’s new film, The Roads Not Taken, is the story of a man experiencing flashes of what would have been as he struggles with what is. Beneath, it’s a story of American apathy toward the mentally handicapped. If one scene toward the movie’s end is taken in context with Potter’s personal history—Potter’s older brother lived with Pick’s disease, a condition akin to Alzheimer’s and defined by aphasia, before passing away in 2013—then the broader intention feels clearer: The Roads Not Taken is a plea for compassion for people grappling with neurological disorders.
Leo (Javier Bardem), having left his apartment in the dead of night to go a-wandering in the streets, runs into Tazeem (Ray Jahan) and Rahim (Waleed Akhtar) who, in contrast with every other stranger he meets, treat him with kindness and dignity. They try talking with him. They wrap him in a blanket and soak his feet in warm water. Eventually, in a riskier move, they call the police for help, but all ends well and he’s soon reunited with his daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning). Given how little patience most other characters in the movie show poor Leo, Tazeem and Rahim look like superheroes. For a not-insignificant chunk of viewers, the depth of their kindness will likely come as a tonic in our worldwide moment of uncertainty and social distance.
But there’s another 70 or so minutes of movie surrounding this one touching beat, and considering the source, they’re surprisingly constipated. At her best, Potter is a decisive (if peculiar) filmmaker with graceful command over her material. In The Roads Not Taken, she’s seems stricken by indecision. Taking place over the course of a single day, the movie flits back and forth from Leo’s real life, spent with beset-upon Molly as she tries to get him to the dentist and optometrist, to his imagined lives: In Mexico with Dolores (Salma Hayek), his sweetheart, and on an island in Greece by himself, stoically trying to finish his novel. If the film invites nothing but pity for Leo’s deteriorated state, what we see of him in his fantasies makes him look like a selfish asshole. (That’s more or less how people he interacts with in these vignettes receive him, at least.)
It’s curious to watch Leo on the outside alongside Potter’s supporting cast: More than once, Molly is incensed that Leo’s caretakers talk about him as if he isn’t even there in the room with him, but, as her mother Rita (Laura Linney) points out, he isn’t. Not really. Physically, he’s present. Spiritually he’s globetrotting. It’s a lovely sentiment—he may be stuck in his body, but his body can’t hold him in place for long! But Potter doesn’t treat this transcendence as a gift: It’s more of a punishment, except maybe for people who think abandoning one’s wife and newborn child to write a book while smoking and drinking on the Mediterranean is noble. Leo is in Hell.
Curiously, the film focuses on dementia’s internal side instead of its external side. Dementia, no matter its pathology, is defined by loss of the self, and forces families to reconcile the person who’s sitting in front of them with the person they were. The Roads Not Taken works when Bardem and Fanning are on screen together, where Potter’s experiences caring for her sibling rise to the writing’s surface and give the narrative a punch of honesty. Leo soils himself at the dentist’s, and Molly takes him to a restroom to relieve him of his ruined trousers; the comic effort she puts into convincing Leo to surrender his pants feels like the movie’s greatest, sweetest truism, a genuine bit of levity in circumstances hostile to it.
Potter edited The Roads Not Taken with Jason Rayton and Emilie Orsini, and their combined efforts at cutting the picture together are undoubtedly impressive. Each time they fall deeper into Leo’s unconscious, they find the right door to walk themselves back to what’s happening to him in the outside world, and the fit is always seamless. But their talent for cleanly returning Leo to his reality from his illusions does little to offset The Roads Not Taken’s more puzzling, and less effective, basic conceit.
Director: Sally Potter
Writer: Sally Potter
Starring: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney, Branka Kati?
Release Date: March 20, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.