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Andrea Riseborough’s ‘To Leslie’ Deserves an Oscar Nomination for One Master Class of a Scene

If you’re wondering if Andrea Riseborough really deserves an Oscar nomination for To Leslie—an indie drama that premiered at last year’s South by Southwest and is now available to rent or buy on digital platforms—I’m here to tell you that the answer is yes. And the proof is in one, simple, heartbreaking scene in which Riseborough puts it all on the table.

You probably hadn’t heard of To Leslie before this week. The film had a quiet, limited theatrical release in September, and earned less than $30,000 at the box office. Yet in the past few days, A-list celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Amy Adams, and Cate Blanchett have declared it one of the best films of the year, going all-in on a last-minute push for an Oscar nomination for its lead actress and producer, Andrea Riseborough. Paltrow, in particular, lavished To Leslie with praise in an Instagram post, in which she called it a “masterpiece of a film,” adding that “Andrea [Riseborough] should win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.”

Some found the sudden outpouring of love suspicious. But honestly? After watching the film, Paltrow is right. To Leslie is, if not a masterpiece, a poignant, soul-stirring character study that will break your heart and then put it back together again. It’s all thanks to a truly phenomenal performance by Riseborough.

Directed by debut filmmaker Michael Morris and written by Ryan Binaco, To Leslie stars Riseborough as a single mother named Leslie, who wins $190,000 in her local Texas lottery, but eventually loses all her winnings to alcoholism. After showing us her win, the film fast-forwards six years in Leslie’s life to what she believes to be rock bottom: Evicted from her apartment, unable to pay rent, and forced to rely on her 20-year-old son to give her a roof over her head. Her son, James (played by an earnest Owen Teague), tells her she can stay as long as she wants, as long as she doesn’t drink.

But Leslie drinks. And drinks, and drinks, and drinks. Over the course of the film, she is given a second chance by her son, her family friends, and a kindly do-gooder, all of whom offer her help on the condition she stops drinking. And yet Leslie can’t stop, so time and time again, she is kicked to the curb by her loved ones, lugging along her ever-present baby pink suitcase. After one particularly bad night, she decides to get sober. With the help of her new boss/friend Sweeney (played by a very sweet Marc Maron), she manages to kick the booze for a week or so. But then she and Sweeney get into a fight, and Leslie goes to a bar.

It’s here where Riseborough finally lets the audience see Leslie, all of Leslie, without any masks, pretenses, or defense mechanisms. She splits herself open completely, and the result is heart-breaking, Oscar-worthy vulnerability. At the bar, still totally sober, Leslie orders a beer and a shot. When she asks the bartender, “How much?” it’s with an air of total defeat. With those two words, Riseborough manages to tell us more about Leslie than an Oscar-bait speech could: This is a woman who believes she is doomed, forever, to be a failure.

To Leslie "Tell me I'm good"
Photo: Momentum Pictures

Before Leslie can drink, she is interrupted by a young, handsome man hoping to pick her up. He puts on the moves, and Leslie lets him, but she still doesn’t pick up her drink. Riseborough masterfully allows the tension between her and that glass mount, almost as if it were another actor in the scene. At one point, she physically turns away from it, as she asks the man what it was that he sees in her. “Did you see something special in me?” Leslie asks. “Or did you just see a sure thing?”

The man offers to tell Leslie she’s beautiful if that’s what she wants. But that’s not what Leslie wants. Instead, she asks the man for something far more crushing: “Tell me I’m good,” Riseborough says, her eyes shining and her lip quivering just slightly. “Tell me I ain’t a piece of shit.”

Riseborough lets a single tear fall as the man assures that, no, she’s not a piece of shit, and yes, she is good. She doesn’t know this man from Adam, but it’s what she needed to hear. It’s what she needed to tell herself. Leslie leaves her beer untouched at the bar and returns home to Sweeney. You can watch a clip from this incredible scene below.

Phew. If you can watch that scene and tell me that Riseborough doesn’t deserve an Oscar nomination for that alone, then I regret to inform you that you have no taste. Unfortunately, nomination voting for Academy members closed yesterday, so this plea from me and Paltrow may be too late. With only five slots available, and a list of better-known, likely contenders—Cate Blanchette, Michelle Yeoh, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Michelle Williams, just to name a few—it might be a longshot to get Riseborough’s name up there, too.

But it’s not impossible. Risborough did get a nomination for Best Lead Performance at the Independent Spirit Awards, which will be awarded in March. Gwenyth may get her wish yet. And in the meantime, do spend the $7 it costs to rent To Leslie on digital. It definitely ain’t a piece of shit.

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