Regret, despite playing heavily through performances isn’t usually a visual concept, one you can tangibly feel through a simple sunrise or a faded photo in a wallet. Sally Potter makes regret visible in her latest feature The Roads Not Taken, something you can physically recoil at, a very real presence in a film lacking in reality. Constantly hanging over every frame of her film, Potter’s tale, despite this impressive feat is just a little too hypothetical, relying too heavily on flashbacks and hallucinations, stories that could be real or fragments of a broken mind, pondering on paths not walked or lives never lived. It’s all very interesting, but it never really finds a sense of self among all the diverging strands of memories and fractured ideas of the past.
Following Leo (Javier Bardem), a writer suffering from serious dementia on a day in New York as his daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), his put upon carer who is trying to respect his wishes and allow him to live at home, tries to navigate their way across the city to a series of appointments. Leo however is stuck in his own mind replaying memories in his head, the regret of letting go a young love or a moment of guilt spent drinking his pain away on a Greek island. These moments that defined his life play out but the outcomes change, the choices seem more idealized or more hard to swallow. The questions that exist in his own head are the kind that plague Molly in reality while she struggles to maintain a job beneath the weight of responsibility her father represents, forcing her to confront choices regarding her own life and his care.
Split into three different tales, with two serving as both memories and wish fulfillment at the same time, the only real piece of story here is Leo’s journey around New York with a daughter he barely recognizes down streets he doesn’t recognize in a world that doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s such a dour tale, one with all too brief moments of relief or gallows humour, thanks to a all too brief cameo by Laura Linney as Molly’s mother or the impressive talent of Fanning who manages to bring about affection through a simple smile or an infectious laugh. The real moments of relief come through the tranquility of Leo’s lucid dreams, moments that prove welcome interruptions to the stark reality of Leo’s situation. These stories, for all their untold mysteries and small glimpses into the mind of a man who has since lost his own, the kind that keep you invested, they revolve around equally demoralizing moments of Leo’s fractious life. Potter’s story (one she also wrote) isn’t just a hard watch, it is almost devoid of hope or a sense of lightness in a life well lived. Leo’s regrets seep into everything, even Molly’s life is made that much more harrowing because of it.
Both Fanning and Bardem give committed performances that add glimmers of character to dialogue light introspective roles that gain more from small actions or gestures made sweeter by Potter’s keen directors eye. A brief moment of embarrassment at a dentists office in the early moments of Potter’s tale shows the fine line between a great performance by Fanning as she tries to calm her father down and a good director as Potter uses this small moment to not only speak to Molly’s devotion but her ingenuity and skill at handling her confused father. Leading her audience to conclusions while never giving the game away is impressive. It’s the spoken moments between Leo and Molly that feel wrong, as clumsy discussions of racism and diversity overpower a central tale that doesn’t need anymore themes sloppily tacked on. It feels inauthentic in a film that’s main currency is its honest and real depiction of dementia and the decisions that it strips from not just its sufferers but the people left behind to watch.
What The Roads Not Taken does so well is how it lingers, not just in moments of distress but the questions it poses. Be it what Molly is going to do once their day is over, but also the question of how much, if any of Leo’s world is true. The choices these two make eat away at them but also, the ones they leave, incapable of deciding remain long after the credits roll. Fanning in particular uses this forking narrative to paint Molly as compassionate but also wracked with guilt about the inevitable moment she can’t do this anymore. It’s another in a growing list of top notch performances by the young actress.
While it is hard not to see the skill here and appreciate it, not just Potter’s direction, but more often than not her own deftly composed and delicate score, one that doesn’t make her story any more heart-rending, instead alleviating a sense of dread, making these struggles seem somewhat bearable, the subject matter makes a short film (it clocks in at a slim 85 minutes) seem endless. The narrative drag is easy to mistake for wallowing and while not a minute is wasted, Potters story has a depressive feeling that is impossible to shake. There is little enjoyment to be found here, not because this is a bad feature, more because even if you haven’t encountered dementia and its effects in your life, the story here is so painfully relatable in how it handles guilt, regret and fear of letting go that prior knowledge only makes the experience cut deeper.
Potter proves here a deft hand at powerful visual storytelling but it is the stories not told here that makes The Roads Not Taken worth watching and personally I will be pondering what happens next longer than this short but harmful film lasted.