The Roads Not Taken

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
The Roads Not Taken Movie Poster Image
Drama about dementia imperfect but makes emotional impact.
  • R
  • 2020
  • 85 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Deals frankly with upsetting effects of dementia and how hard it is for loved ones to deal with it. Wonders about idea of "roads not taken" -- i.e., what our lives might have been like had we made different decisions.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Molly gets credit for risking her job to take care of her father (although you could ask why, if this was such an important day for her, she couldn't have rescheduled his medical appointments). She's genuinely upset about losing the job, but she continues to do the right thing, standing by him. Leo is flawed, has many regrets, but also mostly means well.


A character hits his head; some blood shown. A character yells, accusing another of stealing her dog. Character tackled by security guards. Character passed out, adrift on rowboat. Some violence- and death-related dialogue. General stress and tension.


A young woman removes her pants. (She gives them to her father to wear after he wets his own pants.) Nothing sensitive shown.


Strong, fairly frequent language includes uses of "f--k," "f--king," "bastard," "God's sake," "stupid," etc.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A man has a drink or two at a beachside bar. Smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Roads Not Taken is a drama about a man (Javier Bardem) with dementia who, over the course of a day, thinks about (or imagines) two other times in his life -- one in Mexico and one in Greece. It's more of an emotional story than a logical one, and mature viewers who can forgive storytelling flaws may find it moving. Violence/danger-wise, a man hits his head (blood is shown); a woman yells at a man, accusing him of stealing her dog, and he's tackled; and a man is passed out, adrift on a rowboat. There's some violence- and death-related dialogue, as well as general stress and tension. A man urinates in his pants, and his adult daughter gives him hers to wear. Language is fairly strong, with several uses of "f--k" and other words. Characters drink and smoke cigarettes at a beachside bar.

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What's the story?

In THE ROADS NOT TAKEN, Leo (Javier Bardem) is a man who's living with dementia. His adult daughter, Molly (Elle Fanning), arrives to take him to dentist and eye doctor appointments. Meanwhile, Leo seems to be remembering -- or imagining -- two other key times in his life. In one, he's with his first wife, Dolores (Salma Hayek), in Mexico, arguing about whether to attend a remembrance for the dead. In another, he's in Greece, having left his family behind to pursue a career as a writer. There Leo meets a beautiful young woman, Anni (Milena Tscharntke), and starts to rethink both his novel and his life decisions. Back in the present, Molly's troubles increase: She hears some bad news about a potential job, and then her father wanders off in the night.

Is it any good?

This soapy drama has its share of problems, but director Sally Potter's quiet, drifting tone and a batch of excellent performances allow for certain potent moments of thought and emotion. The Roads Not Taken suffers a little from its droopy tone and the solemn way it handles the dementia-related scenes. Additionally, it can't quite find an equal balance between its three storylines. The Mexico story in particular seems to go on for quite a while as Leo walks around aimlessly, avoiding the festival that he will eventually, finally attend, although Potter nearly saves the day with a lovely shot of Bardem resting in a truck bed full of corn.

On the upside, Potter has always had a good touch for soap opera, heading straight for gushing, truthful emotions, no matter how bumpy the route. Bardem does most of the heavy lifting in a performance that recalls his other illness-related roles in The Sea Inside and Biutiful. But he also gets to stretch out in the Mexico and Greece sequences. Fanning has a trickier role, staying realistic while also holding on to hope that her father will suddenly become well. Laura Linney turns up in a small role as Molly's mother/Leo's ex-wife, giving a sharp dose of matter-of-factness that feels just right. With this in mind, viewers' appreciation of The Roads Not Taken will likely depend on whether plot can be overlooked in favor of feeling.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how The Roads Not Taken depicts violence and/or stress and tension. How does it feel when the characters get hurt or when they shout or get upset?

  • What is dementia? How does it affect people, and how does it affect those around them? How does the movie portray dementia?

  • Do you suppose Leo's flashbacks of Mexico and Greece really happened, or is his brain wondering about alternate lives? Do you ever wonder what your life might have been like if you'd made a different choice?

  • What is the father-daughter relationship like in this movie? How does it compare to your own relationships?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

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