▶︎ The Roads Not Taken is in UK cinemas from 11 September

“Write what you know” is a familiar adage; a more valuable bit of advice is to get some distance from personal pain before turning it into art. The time between pain and art allows poignant work like Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken, which takes movie clichés – the death of a child, caring for a parent with dementia – and infuses them with heartfelt emotion.

The problems of autobiography, the writing process and the writer’s ego recur throughout the film, establishing bitter ironies. Leo (Javier Bardem) was a novelist, before an unnamed disorder restricted his ability to communicate and control his body.

While he is mentally revising other parts of his life, Molly (Elle Fanning), his daughter, is trying to get him to two appointments. They work at cross-purposes: Leo is often so engrossed in his ‘work’ that he performs a gesture that makes sense in that memory but not during, say, a dental exam. This disjunction can be humorous, but also terrifying: Leo exits a moving taxi, prompting an MRI and a visit from his ex-wife Rita (Laura Linney), also a writer – she says they broke up because she became more successful than him.

Javier Bardem and Laura Linney in The Roads Not Taken

Potter intersperses Molly’s caregiving with the memories Leo reimagines through the day. Like Orlando, in Potter’s 1992 film, Leo has a core which remains the same despite his diverging journeys. Early on, that consistency makes it hard to distinguish contemporaneous events from memory fragments.

For instance, Leo is introduced lying in bed with his eyes open; the next moment, he’s still lying there but now arguing with a woman, who turns out to be Dolores, his first wife (Salma Hayek). Their argument is opaque for most of the film – she keeps urging him to come with her, not specifying where; he responds, “My love, it’s a public celebration of pain that’s become a fucking circus.”

Much later it’s revealed that Leo was avoiding a visit to the grave of their son, who was struck and killed by a car on his way to school. But earlier, when he is lying in hospital after his accident, Leo mumbles something about Dolores and their son, which Rita uses as an opportunity to tell their daughter Molly that his first marriage was “a co-dependent disaster, as far as I could tell,” and that Leo was “obsessed with having boys”. How ironic that he is being cared for by his only daughter!

The Roads Not Taken (2020)

Leo is misunderstood by the world around him. The healthcare workers ask Molly “Is he all there?”, should he be tranquillised? The casual cruelty will be familiar to anyone who is elderly or disabled, or who has been a caregiver. Molly fights back aggressively against these dehumanising remarks, but cannot stop them.

Nor can she prevent the totally different, xenophobic micro- and macro-aggressions Leo experiences because he’s Mexican. Shortly before he’s tackled by a security guard for carrying another woman’s dog – he mistook it for his beloved dead pet Nestor – the woman chases after him and screams, “Get out of my country!” (The film is set entirely in New York, the woman is British.)

The horrible, sparse milieu of the big-box store where this happens communicates as much as the faint pink of his house in Mexico, the brown of the dentist’s office, or the aggressively institutional green of the hospital. Colour unifies and abstracts in surprising moments: when Leo is put into a cop car after a night of wandering the streets, his lips, parted slightly, are illuminated by the cruiser’s blood-red light.

The scenes in Mexico echo the austere framing of the desert in Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983), while the scenes in Greece are ambiguous to the point of abstraction. Like all great films about a person who’s stuck in their own head, there is an expansiveness to The Roads Not Taken which Leo cannot experience nor share.

In the final moments of the film, following a difficult heart-to-heart, there are two versions of Molly – one who is leaving to go to work, and another who is staying with him. It’s a rather bittersweet suggestion that Leo will belatedly reimagine how he spent the day before with his daughter.