Forget the controversy surrounding Andrea Riseborough's Oscar nomination — she’s remarkable in this powerful character study.
March 09, 2023
A character drama about a West Texas woman who wins the lottery, but six years later has nothing to show for it except pain, alcoholism and burned bridges, To Leslie is all about English talent Andrea Riseborough's remarkable performance — famously so thanks to her Best Actress Oscar nomination for an indie film widely underseen until that nod of approval. Nothing can take away the power of the Mandy, Possessor and Amsterdam star's stunning portrayal. A spectacular performance is a spectacular performance regardless of what surrounds it. So, Riseborough's work in the debut feature from seasoned TV director Michael Morris (Better Call Saul, 13 Reasons Why, Brothers & Sisters) remains a gut-punch no matter the controversy around the campaign by high-profile names to help get her the Academy's recognition, with Kate Winslet, Edward Norton and Jennifer Aniston among those advocating for accolades.
To Leslie remains Riseborough's movie despite comedian and actor Mark Maron uttering the words that sum it up best, too. In his latest compassionate performance — with a less-gruff edge than he sports in GLOW — he plays Sweeney, the co-proprietor of a roadside motel in Leslie's hometown. That's where she ends up again after the money runs out, plus her luck and everyone she knows' patience with it. As scripted by Ryan Binaco (3022), Sweeney is another of To Leslie's flawed characters. The movie teems with such folks because everyone of us is flawed, and it sees that truth with the clearest of eyes. In a sincere but awkward chat, Sweeney explains how his now ex-wife's drinking helped end his marriage; however, he catches himself afterwards, making a point to say that just because his story turned out like that, that doesn't mean Leslie's will as well, or that he thinks it that'll occur.
One person's tale can be everyone's — cinema, and storytelling in general, thrives on the fact that the deeply specific can be profoundly universal — but no one's experiences ever play out exactly as another's have. That's an essential message at the heart of To Leslie, and it's one that asks for understanding but not judgement. While watching the film's very fictional namesake on-screen, it's easy to spy parallels, to relate, and to feel what it is to be in Leslie, Sweeney or the feature's other figures' shoes. Movies are empathy machines, after all. That said, battling assumptions about what the course that Leslie's story has to follow, and what that says about her and other people who've struggled with addiction and poverty, is as important to Morris and Binaco's picture as Risebourgh's awards-worthy performance.
There's such weight and soul to the actor's titular portrayal in this tale of redemption — when Leslie is at her best, worst, hovering in-between and splashing between the two extremes alike. In early footage that's repeated later, Riseborough is giddily ecstatic holding a giant cheque for $190,000 and hollering in a local news interview about what an impact it'll make (and promising to spoil her young son). She cuts a still-wiry, still-determined sight, but now fraught rather than euphoric, in the hard jump to after the cash has been drunk away, which is when she's being kicked out of her The Florida Project-style digs for not paying her bill. There's a visible difference between the two Leslies, as her grown-up boy James (Teague, The Stand) notes without saying when she reunites with him next — but much of Riseborough's efforts are about what's churning inside Leslie moment by moment, whether inebriated, desperate for whatever she can sip or stone-cold sober.
When she turns up carting a pink suitcase containing all of her worldly belongings, James has one rule for Leslie's attempts to reconnect: no booze. Part of the heartbreak of To Leslie, and of Riseborough's performance, is foreseeing what might happen while witnessing how Leslie endeavours to battle against it. Similarly, part of the film's joys and surprises spring when addiction doesn't win out. With James, though, Leslie can't keep her promise. When she's sent home to Dutch (Stephen Root, Barry) and Nancy (Allison Janney, Breaking News in Yuba County), pals she was once as close as family with, she's met with the spite and bitterness of former friends rather than a son's disappointment and hurt. The bulk of the small town's residents similarly have long memories, largely treating her as a joke. And Sweeney's colleague Royal (Andre Royo, Truth Be Told) is hesitant when the former sees her sleeping outside their motel, initially runs her off, but then generously offers her both a place to stay and a cleaning job.
Country music echoes within the film, heard and spoken about, in a telling choice for a movie about second, third, fourth and fifth chances (and more). Notes of Wild Rose, another feature about a woman piecing her life back together, filter in with that in mind; the two pictures have plenty of dissimilarities, too, but share exceptional leads. Indeed, simply watching Riseborough sit at a bar nursing a drink and listening to a twang-filled tune makes for an astonishing scene, with Morris shrewdly holding the moment, and cinematographer Larkin Seiple (Everything Everywhere All At Once) lighting a lengthy closeup like it's extraordinary and ordinary all at once. In what might be her biggest acting feat in a deservedly well-regarded career, Riseborough knows how to be Leslie, not play her — in this scene and from start to finish. This isn't a performance courting attention, but one committed to conveying what's swishing and swirling within a tumultuous character whose strengths and missteps are both always in view.
To Leslie's least impressive trait is its fondness for neat and conventional beats, although Riseborough ensures that even the most predictable plot developments never feel like a standard pour (as does Morris' ability to recognise what he has with Riseborough as the narrative's anchor). Stories can turn out like this, traversing the highs as well as the lows, and To Leslie certainly isn't afraid of getting messy through its protagonist and her lifetime's worth of tussles before it starts letting hope loiter. It definitely isn't scared of showing what's worth striving for, either, be it the tenderness of Leslie and Sweeney's blossoming bond, the yearning of a mother who wants to finally be able to do right by her son, or a path to a future that's safe and sustainable. Riseborough is striving, of course, but her every move and expression — alone, and when paired with the also-excellent Teague, Maron and Janney — couldn't be more raw, complex and lived in.
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