Stream It or Skip It?
From pretty much out of nowhere comes low-budget indie drama To Leslie (now on VOD streaming services like Amazon Prime Video) and a last-second Oscar push for its star, Andrea Riseborough. The likes of Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett and Gwyneth Paltrow recently stumped for Riseborough’s performance as a West Texas woman struggling with alcoholism, drawing eyes to a movie with a near-zero promotional and awards-season budget, and to an actress whose under-the-radar talent in films like Possessor, The Death of Stalin, and Mandy deserves some recognition. To Leslie debuted at SXSW 2022 and was officially released to VOD in Oct. with miniscule fanfare – but it did land Riseborough an Independent Spirit Awards nom, a little better-late-than-never love for a movie and performance that deserve it.
TO LESLIE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Six years ago, Leslie (Riseborough) won $190,000 in the lottery. Now she’s in the fetal position in a fleabag motel room. She’s evicted, and she doesn’t go quietly. She begs other residents for a loan, curses out the manager. She heads to the bar and gets ripping drunk. The next time we see her, she’s crouched in a doorway with her pink hardshell suitcase, sucking on a cigarette butt and waiting out a rainstorm. From the looks of her grubby skin and clothes, she’s been on the street for a while. Her eye is swollen from god-knows-what. She gets off a bus, and her son James (Owen Teague) picks her up, takes her back to his apartment, buys her some clean secondhand clothes. Out of earshot, he makes a phone call – “Grandma, she’s not gonna hurt me,” he says.
James is barely an adult, but he’s got his shit together. Decent hard-hat construction job, an apartment with a roommate, a life in the city that’s far from luxurious but maybe happy enough for now. Soon enough we’ll glean from the circumstances that he likely had to grow up a little sooner than most. He gives Leslie his room and lays down one ground rule: No drinking. She agrees, but as soon as he leaves for work, she rummages through the apartment, finds some cash, heads to the liquor store and has barely paid for the booze before she takes a long pull from the brown-bagged bottle, the cashier shouting at her to take it outside. James can’t deal with this. Back on the bus she goes.
And she ends up back in Braddock, her modest, dusty hometown with roadside roach-powder-and-ashtray motels and “chug it or f— it” last-call country bars that play Willie and Waylon – none of that new, quasi-country-pop crap – and are lit with dozens of neon beer signs. One of those bars is where she scored big in the lottery, and subsequently bought everyone who knows how many rounds, but it was surely too many. She shacks with Nancy (Alison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root) with the same caveat James laid on her, but that was never going to work, was it? Leslie’s quickly back to her old self, shot and a beer, shot and a beer, obnoxious and vociferous, hitting on cowboys who are too nice to tell her to get lost, working up to a near-permanent wobble. It’s her most comfortable state of being.
She wakes up in the weeds alongside a motel. Sweeney (Marc Maron) runs her off at first. He helps manage the place; the smart and competent but LSD-fried Royal (Andre Royo of The Wire fame) owns it. Royal knows Leslie. All the locals know Leslie – she was on TV when she won the lottery, but her drunken breakdown seems to have made an even greater commotion. Bridges were burned. When she turns up at the motel again, Sweeney does something extraordinary: He gives her a job, gives her his room, invites her to supper with him and Royal. Sweeney’s relatively new to Braddock, and that seems to be precisely why he offers her not judgment or scorn, but a little bit of kindness.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Leaving Las Vegas, inevitably (although Leslie isn’t quite such a tragedy). It trafficks in similar addiction themes as Ben is Back, Flight, The Way Back, Crazy Heart, Rachel Getting Married, etc. It also has similar ’70s-character-drama/emergent-actress/overlooked-gem vibes as 2017 Jessie Buckley-led drama Wild Rose (which is on HBO Max, so go watch it!).
Performance Worth Watching: Riseborough, of course, is the reason to watch this movie, which is familiar in its melodrama but features a riveting core performance. She builds upon her rich, layered characterization by establishing ample chemistry with Maron, who kindles the film’s empathetic spirit, playing a kind, earnest man who understands how far a little bit of grace can go.
Memorable Dialogue: Sweeney says something Leslie really needs to hear: “I don’t think any less of you for havin’ the problems that you do.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Leslie isn’t just another anti-glam depiction of addiction wrought by an Oscar-baiting A-lister; the film’s status as a nearly lost gem automatically disproves that. Riseborough’s all-too-plausible performance never fails to convince us that Leslie is precariously close to… something. Something tragic, perhaps, or something triumphant. She’s on the edge, and we believe it.
A breakthrough one way or the other is inevitable in movies like this – movies like this with typical reclamation arcs and cringeworthy, but convincing scenes of shameless drunkenness. But Riseborough tantalizingly leaves the question of Leslie’s self-awareness up in the air; is she acting out simply because she can get away with it, or is she truly out of control? (Anyone who understands the complexities of life in general knows there’s no satisfying answer to this.) Ryan Binaco’s screenplay peddles some cliches, but it also smartly allows her to hit bottom quietly instead of with her usual display of borderline-gruesome indignity.
Some of the film’s broader, more predictable components unnecessarily soften what could’ve been a more challenging, thematically compelling character study. But Riseborough’s work is a classic case of a performance outshining the material with harsh, but thoughtful realism. Her performance is bolstered by the gritty time-and-place details established by first-time feature director Michael Morris. There’s considerable authenticity in the dustbowl carnivals, jackalopes and rotting infrastructure of Braddock, Texas, a place where a battered laundromat payphone symbolizes an dated and unenlightened approach to addiction. Maybe it takes an outsider like Sweeney to reestablish the setting for a lost soul like Leslie.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Riseborough’s performance in To Leslie is absolutely a diamond in the rough.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.
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