The Roads Not Taken

Leo leans on Molly's shoulder

For middle aged people wondering what the hell happened to the great life they were going to have, where the hell it all went wrong, The Roads Not Taken is your film, but don’t come to it expecting uplift.

Javier Bardem plays Leo, a guy living a life of extreme misery in New York. Floored by what might be a stroke, he needs help to do the most basic everyday things and gets it mostly from his devoted daughter (Elle Fanning), who matter of factly sorts out Leo when he pisses his pants at the dentist and then loses her job because caring for dad has been taking up too much of her time. Misery loves company.

Things are not going well. Leo, for his part, barely notices any of this. He’s barely in the real world and is instead living two parallel fantasy lives, imagining, we imagine, what the “roads not taken” might have yielded if he had taken them.

In one contrary imagineering to his actual grim existence he’s living out in the desert in Mexico, towards the end of a tempestuous affair with the firecracker Dolores (Salma Hayek). In another he’s a globetrotting writer whose restless spirit has brought him to a Greek island, where a beautiful young woman (Milena Tscharntke) has caught his eye, prompting the much older Leo to embark on a pursuit that looks foolish.

A relationship ending and another beginning, there’s a certain symmetry. And a lot of beauty. These parallel, other lives – they might be alternate realities, or could possibly just be the result of a fevered imagination, or Leo’s medication – have been chosen for their picturesqueness and DP Robbie Ryan (who has Slow West, American Honey and Marriage Story on his CV alongside a stack of work for Ken Loach) pulls out the stops to make everything look gorgeous. How many picture postcards and holiday snaps have there been of Greek islands sparkling in an azure sea? Or from Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico? Both get plenty of exposure here.

Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem in a car
Meanwhile, in Mexico… 

Apart from 1992’s Orlando, Sally Potter’s films don’t usually break through into the mainstream. And yet she has a way of both getting great talent to work for her and of getting great work from the talent she gets. This is one of those films where the screenplay (also by Potter) doesn’t say it all. The actors are expected to fill in the missing gaps, and do. Laura Linney is “the woman” in the actual, miserable reality of Leo’s life, the ex wife scarred by bitterness. Hayek, so often required to be little more than a cartoon (it’s the figure), is also nuanced and complex, suggesting a woman of great passion nursing a great loss. Tscharntke, as the hot young thing Leo’s getting into a terrible state over in Greece, is in star-is-born territory. Elle Fanning, so good at playing the anxious insecure young woman, gets plenty of opportunity to do so here. And Bardem, playing essentially three different people who happen to look alike and share the same name, resists the urge to make a meal of it.

Is Leo imagining all this – those locations do seem a bit tourist-obvious – and does it matter? Are these fantasies enriching his miserable current life? How is this all going to resolve itself? Where is it all going?

Gently, ever so gently, there is movement. In the real, here-and-now world of Costco trousers and New York taxis, a chink of optimism. Which is handy because without it this film would be very hard work indeed, the gulf between Leo’s elaborate fantasies and his grim daily existence being simply too wide.

The Roads Not Taken – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Teen Spirit

Violet gets her moment on TV

It doesn’t take much exposure to TV talent shows to realise that success with the voting audience or expert panel isn’t so much about the performance and talent as about the story the contestant tells. Teen Spirit takes that idea, the story, and turns it into a story of its own.

In what could almost be a series of filmed inserts for a talent show we meet Violet (Elle Fanning), the bilingual daughter of Polish immigrant single mother Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska). Dad’s gone. Picked on at school. Loves animals. Works hard in a series of dead end jobs. But the girl loves to sing, as we can tell from the glimpse we catch of her putting her heart into a Tegan and Sara song in the almost empty bar where she works.

This last bit isn’t just a vignette, though, it’s the beginning of Violet’s “journey”. The hobo-looking guy who is the only one to applaud her turns out to be a one-time opera singer from Croatia, Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who takes Violet under his wing when she confides in him that she wants to take part in the Teen Spirit competition. All Vlad has to do is convince Violet’s mother Marla that his intentions are honourable. All Marla has to do is tell Vlad definitively, once and for all, that a 50-50 split on any possible future career earnings is absolutely out of the question. Managers get 15%, end of.

Violet and Vlad
Violet and manager Vlad

This is the directorial debut of Max Minghella, son of Anthony, and he’s really more interested in the “story” than he is in pouring cold water on a staple of shiny-floor TV entertainment. Violet’s slog through initial auditions, proper auditions, qualifying rounds, styled, primped, one hoop after another, is handled in a perfunctory way. He knows we know that Violet is going to sail pretty uneventfully to somewhere near the final, at which point the crunch is going to come. Which is exactly what happens. The TV talent game is tough, it’s glam, it’s fairly dog eat dog, people want to have sex with you all of a sudden, it’s all handled in a brisk and businesslike way.

The focus is on Violet not the paraphernalia, and we root for her as she takes her frail personality onto the stage, overcoming stage fright and general shyness to inch her way to the big prize – a record contract with a big company.

Fanning doesn’t have a big voice but it is a nice voice. She sings in tune. As the film goes on she seems to develop more power. As operatic Vlad teaches Violet one trick or another, a voice coach must have been doing something similar with Fanning. Violet develops a wider range, as the judges have told her to do in her very first audition. We don’t have to believe she is the best in the competition necessarily, since the story is what we’re being sold, not the performance.

We never hear Vlad sing, Zlatko Buric (a Nicolas Winding Refn favourite) not being an opera singer in real life, but even so he feels a bit underused in a drama whose focus is perhaps a bit excessively on Violet. Grochowska, too, feels like a depository of talent it would have been interesting to see a bit more or. However.

We have seen this story before, in the film One Chance, in which James Corden played Paul Potts, the shy nobody who really really wanted to sing. True story.

Minghella’s dad (director of The Talented Mr Ripley and The English Patient) had visual flair and the son seems to have it too. This is in many ways a cautious debut but there is style to spare on display, not least in the broodingly dark shooting style that Minghella and DP Autumn Durald have chosen to illustrate a story that seemed to be crying out for the opposite – the bright lights of TV and music-biz fame and all that.

Minghella also does something interesting with Fanning. Having noticed that there’s often something held back in her performances, he’s somehow – team talk, drugs, hypnotism, no idea – managed to wring a performance out of her towards the end that’s uninhibited, as if (nearly) all the inner restraints have been let go.

This isn’t a brilliant film but it is a good one, entertaining, touching, perky and bright. Just what you want from a Saturday night TV show really.

Teen Spirit – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021