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Review: The Roads Not Taken (2020)

The Roads Not Taken (2020)

Directed by: Sally Potter

Premise: A woman (Elle Fanning) helps her father (Javier Bardem) through a day of errands. He suffers from dementia and is frequently confused, imagining and reliving previous episodes from his life.

What Works: The strongest element of The Roads Not Taken is the father-daughter relationship. Elle Fanning plays a woman whose father is going through dementia and much of the movie is about her struggle to get through her father’s fragmented consciousness and guide him through the day. Her efforts come with strain and sacrifices and Fanning’s character gradually has to accept that her father’s needs are beyond her ability to satisfy. The love between the father and daughter is evident in the journey she takes and Fanning conveys the affection that her character has for this man. Javier Bardem is also impressive. Hollywood films tend to soften depictions of mental illness but Bardem’s performance captures the unglamorous truth; we’re witness to the father’s confusion but every once in a while he has moments of clarity and Bardem makes this visible in subtle ways. Laura Linney is also in the film briefly as the ex-wife of Bardem’s character. In just a few scenes we are brought to understand the nature of their marriage and the triangular relationship between the divorcees and their daughter.

What Doesn’t: The Roads Not Taken alternates between a day in the life of this dementia patient and flashbacks to episodes in his life that may or may not be real. Based on the title, The Roads Not Taken appears poised to explore choices and regrets with Bardem’s character reliving important moments and unresolved business from his past. If that’s the intent, very little of this is clear. The fragments remain just that and the flashback sequences don’t really inform how we understand Bardem’s character or his present relationships, at least not in a meaningful way. The Roads Not Taken sets itself up to be a puzzle with the various pieces contributing to a whole. But the film’s parts don’t add up to much. The problem is that there’s no mystery to solve; the film needs a Rosebud – something tangible that Bardem’s character is trying to resolve. The film has a few options floating around but it never settles on anything and the various flashbacks come across random. There’s nothing here that’s engaging nor is The Roads Not Taken building toward a revelation. As a result, the end of the film leaves us without any sense of having learned much more about this man than when we first met him.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: The Roads Not Taken has a few very good performances but they are in service of an inadequate story. The depiction of dementia is effective and often brutally honest but the film fails as a character study or an examination of choices and consequences.

Episode: #818 (September 20, 2020)