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New This Week (02/03/2023): Close, 80 for Brady, Knock at the Cabin, & More!

February 3, 2023

By John Corrado

New releases for the week of February 3rd, 2023.

Theatrical Releases:

Close

Knock at the Cabin (Wide Release): M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film stars Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge as a couple on vacation with their young daughter at an isolated cabin, who get held hostage by four strangers with a sinister request. Dave Bautista appears in a supporting role. The reviews are pretty good for what seems to be another positive step forward in Shyamalan’s career, and I’m looking forward to checking it out soon.

80 for Brady (Wide Release): This inspired-by-a-true-story comedy about four old ladies (played by Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Rita Moreno) who go to the 2017 Super Bowl to see their hero Tom Brady in action, is purely fluff, but the cast is clearly having fun, and it’s hard not to be won over by the film’s charms in the end. Produced by Brady, who also has a small role as himself, 80 for Brady is an undemanding, feel-good football comedy that kept me smiling throughout. (Full Review)

Close (Limited Release): This moving Best International Feature Oscar nominee follows two 13-year-old boys in Belgium, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele), who share a close bond, before self-consciousness and bullying threatens to tear them apart. As I wrote in my review, director Lukas Dhont’s Cannes Grand Prix winner is “a tender, beautifully observed, and quietly heartbreaking portrait of young male friendship, that captures those fleeting moments of freedom before the harsh judgements of the world come barging in to shatter it.” At TIFF Bell Lightbox and Varsity. (Full Review)

Alice, Darling (Limited Release): This Canadian co-production is a psychological drama about a woman (Anna Kendrick) trying to break free from her emotionally abusive partner while on a cottage getaway with her friends. The supporting characters are paper thin and the film feels underdeveloped in places, but Kendrick is very good in the titular role. If you’re going to watch it, do it for her. In select theatres and on VOD. (Full Review)

More Releases: Million Dollar Pigeons (Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema), The Elephant Mother (Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema), Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls (Carlton Cinema)

Streaming Releases:

Skinamarink (Shudder): This viral horror sensation from Canadian director Kyle Edward Ball is now available to stream exclusively on Shudder, following an impressive run in theatres where it pulled in $1.9 million on a minuscule $15,000 budget. It’s an interesting exercise in experimental filmmaking, that breaks free from a conventional narrative to instead offer a purely experiential piece of cinema that is meant to evoke the uniquely eery feeling of waking up in the middle night as a child and exploring the dark house. Worth checking out for adventurous genre fans. (Full Review)

More Releases: Alice, Darling (Digital/VOD), Erin’s Guide to Kissing Girls (Digital/VOD), True Spirit (Netflix), The Estate (Prime Video), Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Disney+), Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (Prime Video)

Review: Close

February 3, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Being made to feel self-conscious about who are as a child is a hell of a thing. Belgian director Lukas Dhont powerfully explores this feeling in his Oscar-nominated coming of age drama Close, which tells the story of Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele), two 13-year-old boys who share a very close bond.

The boys are best friends who play together, have sleepovers in the same bed, and are always at each other’s side at school. They are so close that the other kids have started to notice and come to their own conclusions, because that’s generally what kids do.

It starts with a well-meaning but nosy group of girls somewhat innocently asking if they are gay, and soon leads to taunts and playground bullying. This, in turn, causes Léo to become self-conscious and begin to second guess their interactions together, causing him to feel ashamed and start pulling away from Rémi.

Where as Dhont explored gender identity in his 2018 debut Girl, Close – which won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year – finds him probing questions about burgeoning homosexuality, at an impressionable and vulnerable young age when kids are still very much in the process of figuring themselves out and being influenced by the opinions of their peers.

It’s a fragile balance that Dhont and his co-screenwriter Angelo Tijssens (who also co-wrote Girl) have carefully pulled off, since these characters haven’t even really defined their own sexuality yet. Because of this, Close offers a unique and somewhat bold riff on the traditional “coming out” narrative. While it’s easy to assume that one or both of the boys might be gay due to how they act with each other, the point is that Léo and Rémi are still just kids, and the judgements of others and the rush to put them into boxes is what ends up tearing them apart.

The visual language of Dhont’s film instantly stands out, with some gorgeous cinematography by Frank van den Eeden that makes use of gliding long takes following the kids running through fields and riding their bikes, accentuated by bright colours that pop off the screen. This gives a vivid, contrasting quality to the tragedy and heartbreak that builds within the story. The first half of Close in particular has a captivating, naturalistic energy to it that isn’t quite replicated in its slightly more conventional second half, and the film does threaten to veer into melodrama at times as it goes along, but is pulled back from the brink.

Dhont’s film works thanks to the impressive performances that he gets out of his young actors, and the lingering questions that he raises. Émile Dequenne also does strong work as Rémi’s mother, whom Léo finds himself getting close to. I found myself wondering how these events will continue to haunt these characters in ten or twenty years, and that’s really the power of Dhont’s moving and emotionally fragile film. This is a tender, beautifully observed, and quietly heartbreaking portrait of young male friendship, that captures those fleeting moments of freedom before the harsh judgements of the world come barging in to shatter it.

Close is now playing in limited release, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Sphere Films.

Review: 80 for Brady

February 3, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

As far as self-produced vanity projects go, the inspired-by-a-true-story comedy 80 for Brady, which follows four old ladies who go to the Super Bowl to see their hero Tom Brady play, is a pretty enjoyable one.

Produced by Brady, who also gives himself a small role playing himself, this is a feel-good football comedy that kept me smiling throughout. It’s purely fluff, but the cast is clearly having fun, and it’s hard not to be won over by the film’s charms in the end.

The film centres around four friends – Lou (Lily Tomlin), Trish (Jane Fonda), Betty (Sally Field) and Maura (Rita Moreno) – who have become die hard New England Patriots fans after discovering football in their old age. They have obsessive rituals to watch the game together, to help cheer on their MVP, Tom Brady.

When Lou scores four tickets to the 2017 Super Bowl, it’s off to Houston, Texas to fulfill their dream of attending the big game, with each of the ladies having their own reasons for why the trip is so important to them. There are, of course, several setbacks and pitfalls along the way, as the women get into all sorts of shenanigans, from a spicy wings contest hosted by Guy Fieri to a drug-fuelled poker game with Billy Porter (playing a choreographer named Gugu) at an elite party that the women get invited to.

The film does have a bit of a made-for-TV feel to it at times (though the fact that it’s being released in theatres during the streaming era is oddly refreshing), with the humour including some predictable senior jokes that will incite as many groans as they do chuckles, though these actresses are all talented enough to make the one-liners land. It’s also never really in doubt that this is basically a vanity project. But Brady is allowed to pat himself on the back every once in a while, and the four leading ladies are all having so much fun that it’s easy to get caught up in it.

While the outcome is never really in question, this predictability isn’t a bad thing. What works about 80 for Brady is that it embraces being a comfort movie, one that can be appreciated both as a sweet story about undying friendship and a celebration of the unifying power of football (while it isn’t a traditional sports movie, the film does satisfyingly allow fans to relive highlights of the historic 2017 game between the Patriots and Falcons). Tomlin also has one scene that effectively tugs at the heartstrings. At a briskly paced 95 minutes, 80 for Brady offers an undemanding and easily enjoyable good time.

80 for Brady opens exclusively in theatres on February 3rd. It’s being distributed in Canada by Paramount Pictures.

Review: Alice, Darling

February 2, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

The Canadian co-production Alice, Darling is a drama starring Anna Kendrick in the titular role of Alice, a career-oriented young woman in Toronto living with her emotionally abusive partner, a visual artist named Simon (Charlie Carrick).

On the surface, Alice seems to have an enviable relationship, as she accompanies Simon to his gallery opening. But we observe glimpses of his controlling nature through the way that she nervously checks her phone when out with friends, sending him constant updates and photos so she doesn’t get in trouble for being out too long, and instantly capitulates to his desires when she is with him.

When Alice goes for a week away at a cottage with her two friends Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) to celebrate Tess’ milestone birthday, she has to lie to Simon about it being a business trip in order to get away. But, as Alice’s mental health starts to deteriorate, the trip turns into somewhat of an intervention as her friends start to realize the degree to which she is trapped in her relationship.

The feature directorial debut of Mary Nighy (daughter of actor Bill), Alice, Darling is a low-key character study of someone suffocating in an emotionally abusive relationship. The screenplay by Alanna Francis makes the somewhat clever structural choice of getting the three friends to the cottage pretty quick, and peeling back the layers of Alice and Simon’s relationship mostly through glimpses and flashbacks. While his presence looms large, Simon is barely even in the film, which works to both diffuse the character of some of his power while also showing how he continues to negatively impact Alice’s mental well-being even when they aren’t physically together.

The film works best when the focus is purely on Kendrick’s Alice, but is held back by its paper thin supporting characters, with Sophie and Tess barely being fleshed out as anything more than a means to an end to get the main character out of her relationship. There is a hinted at backstory involving a falling out between Alice and Tess that feels severely under-explored. The film also raises questions about if her friends are actually making the best choices in terms of trying to help, such as Tess hiding Alice’s phone and forcing her out on the water on a paddle board when Alice is clearly panicking.

A prominent subplot about a missing girl in cottage country also feels underdeveloped, with Alice joining the daily search parties. This causes more of a rift with Tess, who wants the trip to be about her. The film at times feels like it wants to bleed over into being more of a thriller, without really committing to it, and the brief 89 minute run time keeps Alice, Darling from going as in-depth as it needs to in terms of its characters and themes.

But Kendrick is genuinely very good here, initially keeping much of Alice’s trauma and anxiety internal when she is around other people, and allowing it to come out through hair-pulling and panic attacks when she is alone. Kendrick impressively handles the inevitable emotional breakdown required for the character, and we do root for her to break free. While’s it’s easy to wish that the film around her was stronger, Alice, Darling is still worth seeing for her.

Alice, Darling opens in select theatres on February 3rd, and will also be available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

Review: Skinamarink

February 1, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Made on a budget of $15,000 dollars, Canadian director Kyle Edward Ball’s lo-fi horror film Skinamarink has become something of a sensation, having now grossed $1.9 million in theatres.

This success is all the more impressive considering the heavily experimental nature of the film itself, which eschews conventional narrative and instead focuses on being a purely experiential piece of cinema that is meant to evoke the feeling of being in a dark house as a child.

Set in 1995, the official synopsis (from IMDb) is as follows; “two children wake up in the middle of the night to find their father is missing, and all the windows and doors in their home have vanished.” And that’s really it.

Named for the Canadian children’s song, Skinamarink has a real sense of eeriness running throughout it, that feels somewhat like a half-remembered childhood nightmare. The film unfolds entirely through long, sometimes static shots punctuated by a few jump moments as the two kids, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), explore the house and decide to sleep downstairs. Toys are strewn about on the floor, objects start to disappear. A TV playing old cartoons is constantly on in the background, providing a familiar but also dissonant soundtrack, and the film’s minimal dialogue is intentionally muffled, with Ball making use of subtitles.

Expanded from YouTuber Ball’s 2020 short film Heck, the result is a peculiar little film; one that has a premise but no real plot, with Ball focused instead on capturing that very specific feeling of being a little kid and waking up in the middle of the night, and venturing out of your bedroom to explore the dark house with no one around. It’s a uniquely eery feeling that everyone has felt, and Ball does a good job of capturing it in his stripped down, analog-inspired style.

Shot in his childhood home in Edmonton, Ball’s film mainly unfolds through grainy footage of the house at night that evokes old home movies (it was shot digitally by cinematographer Jamie McRae), with long takes showing dimly lit hallways and ceilings, the camera purposely obscuring many details. These odd angles are intentional, and give the feeling of something being off. Aside from some shots of feet walking down carpeted hallways, the protagonists also are not seen, with much of the film being presented from their perspective.

While Skinamarink is probably best described as something akin to an arthouse riff on “found footage” horror films like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, it’s also a film that you can’t really do justice to in writing, because it was made simply to be experienced on a sensory level. At times it even feels more like a collection of images that could be projected on a gallery wall, made to evoke a feeling as you stand there watching them. Because of this, I do think that the film might have been more impactful if it had clocked in closer to eighty minutes, rather than its somewhat inflated 100 minute run time.

While I don’t know if it entirely works as a conventional feature film, Skinamarink does get points for being its own thing, and is often uniquely effective as an experiment and as an experience. On these terms, the film is successful at what it sets out to do, with Ball capturing that strange, unsettling middle of the night feeling very effectively, and the final few images have a genuinely haunted and demonic feel to them that is hard to shake. Maybe Ball really did channel something after all.

Skinamarink is now playing in theatres, and will be available to stream exclusively on Shudder as of February 2nd.

Review: Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter

January 31, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter is a documentary portrait of the brilliant but troubled celebrity chef, whose self-named Chicago restaurant Charlie Trotter’s became known as one of the best restaurants in the world during its heyday.

Directed by Rebecca Halpern, Love, Charlie mainly works as a compelling portrait of this complicated, outsider genius who struggled to maintain his success through to the end, as he faced a series of financial setbacks and major health challenges, which he kept hidden from almost everyone around him.

Family members and friends recall a unique personality with an almost philosophical approach to food, who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Trotter was basically a self-taught chef (he dropped out of culinary school after six weeks), and cut his teeth working in other kitchens, before opening his eponymous restaurant (the first in what became a chain) with financial help from his businessman father and the support of his family.

But, while Trotter’s perfectionism and strive to be the best kept him constantly innovating in the kitchen, he also struggled to maintain relationships with his employees, and was known for his cantankerous personality and impatient treatment of his staff (which he self-parodied in a cameo role in My Best Friend’s Wedding). What emerges is a slightly thorny portrait of an eccentric chef with a unique vision for how to run a restaurant, including putting a dining table in the middle of his kitchen so special guests could watch him and his cooks work while they ate.

Despite using a lot of different meats in his cooking, it’s interestingly noted that Trotter also helped to revolutionize vegetarian cuisine with a variety of vegetable dishes. He also decided to stop serving foie gras at his restaurants in 2005 after visiting several farms and seeing the cruelty behind producing it, a stand that led to a flame war with other Chicago restaurateurs.

The film almost breathlessly takes us through his many accomplishments, telling a warts-and-all version of Trotter’s story through a mix of archival footage and interviews with a variety of subjects who knew him, including his best friend and first wife Lisa Ehrlich, who shares the constant stream of letters he initially sent to court her, and other celebrity chefs who were in his orbit. They include Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse, as well as employee turned rival Grant Achatz, who recounts the falling out he had with Trotter after leaving his kitchen to open Alinea, which ended up overtaking Trotter’s as the most celebrated restaurant in Chicago.

The mostly standard talking-heads approach of Halpern’s film works thanks to solid editing and a quick pace that, at a brisk 96 minutes, keeps us engaged with stories, offering an engaging glimpse into the personal life and work ethic of the fiercely independent Trotter.

Love, Charlie: The Rise and Fall of Chef Charlie Trotter is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

 

Review: You People (Netflix)

January 28, 2023

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy star as a Jewish man and his future father-in-law in You People, a new Netflix romantic comedy from director Kenya Barris.

Co-written by Barris and Hill, the film is first and foremost a cringe comedy about the racial divide in current America that plays like a modern riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner crossed with Meet the Parents. And it is genuinely pretty funny at times, despite being a somewhat uneven effort overall.

The film primarily sets itself up as a love story between Ezra (Hill), a white Jewish dude in Los Angeles who listens to rap music and co-hosts a podcast about “the culture” with his bestie Mo (Sam Jay), and Amira (Lauren London), a Black costume designer.

The two have a “meet cute” moment when he mistakes her for his Uber driver and accidentally gets in the back of her car, and a relationship blossoms between them. But there are Ezra’s parents Shelley (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Arnold (David Duchovny) to contend with, as well as Amira’s parents Akbar (Murphy) and Fatima (Nia Long). Shelley is the sort of well-meaning, wannabe progressive white lady who doesn’t realize how her attempts at racial sensitivity can come off as condescending, while Akbar plays up his devout Muslim faith and makes no secret of his disdain towards his daughter marrying a non-Black man.

In short, You People is about a Jewish family and a Muslim family who are about to become in-laws, and we can see exactly where Hill and Barris are going with this, one awkward encounter after another. If the film feels like it is trading in broad racial humour at times, many of the jokes also admittedly land, and it is at its best when allowing the talented cast to simply start riffing off each other. The truth is, these are some very funny people, so even if all of the material doesn’t quite stick, they still get a lot of good mileage out of it, especially in exchanges between Murphy, Hill and Louis-Dreyfus.

Their performances in particular help elevate the film. Murphy is more of a subdued presence here than he has been in past roles, but still gets off a string of sharp one-liners and steely, disapproving reaction shots. Hill reminds us how good he can be as a comedic lead and has a couple of speeches that are nicely delivered, while Louis-Dreyfus plays sincere but clueless very well.

It’s still an uneven film, and it can be easy to wish that the strongest material here was in service of a better overall movie. The film doesn’t really go as deep as it might try to in terms of its mostly surface-level social commentary, and the story still has to work within the constraints of the rom-com formula, including a rushed ending that feels somewhat forced. The chemistry between Hill’s Ezra and London’s Amira – two characters who don’t actually have a ton in common – is also not as strong as it needs to be for the movie to fully connect as a romance.

It’s clearly not the best movie, or even necessarily the sharpest handling of this premise. But Barris and Hill keep the film popping at close to two hours despite a few rough patches, and the joke-to-laugh ratio is still decent enough to make You People an easily watchable and fairly enjoyable Netflix comedy.

You People is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

New This Week (01/27/2023): Infinity Pool, When You Finish Saving the World, You People, & More!

January 27, 2023

By John Corrado

New releases for the week of January 27th, 2023.

Theatrical Releases:

Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore in When You Finish Saving the World

Infinity Pool (Wide Release): The latest film from director Brandon Cronenberg (son of David Cronenberg), Infinity Pool is arriving in theatres fresh off of its Sundance premiere. The film stars Alexander Skarsgård and Mia Goth as a couple on a beach vacation that takes a dark turn. I missed the screening, but am looking forward to checking it out soon. I liked Brandon Cronenberg’s previous film Possessor, so I’m curious to see what twisted vision he has in store this time around.

When You Finish Saving the World (TIFF Bell Lightbox): Jesse Eisenberg’s confident and enjoyable directorial debut is a quirky comedy about a mother and son struggling to reconnect. Finn Wolfhard stars as aspiring teenage singer-songwriter Ziggy Katz, and Julianne Moore is his mother Evelyn, who runs a women’s shelter and finds a stand-in for her own increasingly aloof child when she meets Kyle (Billy Byrk), the sensitive son of one of her clients. It’s buoyed along by good performances and Eisenberg’s often witty writing. Wolfhard and Byrk will be joining for live Q&As after the 3:45 pm and 6:30 pm screenings at Lightbox today. (Full Review)

More Releases: Living (TIFF Bell Lightbox), Loudmouth (Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema), Left Behind: Rise of the Antichrist (Limited), Fortress of Skulls (Limited)

Streaming Releases:

You People (Netflix): Eddie Murphy and Jonah Hill star in this Netflix romantic comedy from director Kenya Barris (co-written by him and Hill) that seems to be like a modern riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Reviews are somewhat mixed, but I’ll be watching it for Murphy, who has long been one of my favourite comedic actors. (Full Review)

Shrinking (Apple TV+): This new comedy series stars Jason Segel as a psychiatrist still grieving the death of his wife, who decides to take a more hands-on approach in the lives of his patients, much to the chagrin of his older supervisor (Harrison Ford). I previewed the first few episodes, and it’s off to a pretty good start. Even if the show feels a little too light to fully grapple with its heavier themes, it still strikes a decent balance between humour and heart. I’ve always liked Segel as an actor, and this series allows him to showcase his innate ability to thread the needle between comedy and drama, while Ford is delightfully grouchy. First two (of ten) episodes premiere today, with new episodes dropping every Friday.

More Releases: Shotgun Wedding (Prime Video), Teen Wolf: The Movie (Paramount+)

Review: When You Finish Saving the World

January 26, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The directorial debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg, When You Finish Saving the World (which had its premiere at Sundance in 2022) is a quirky comedic story about a self-absorbed mother and son who are struggling to reconnect.

The son, Ziggy Katz (Finn Wolfhard), is a budding teenage singer-songwriter who is preoccupied with making money by performing his songs on livestreams for twenty thousand fans around the world (which he brags about constantly).

Ziggy’s mother, Evelyn (Julianne Moore), runs a shelter for women fleeing domestic abuse. The two have reached somewhat of an impasse in their relationship, with their interactions mostly limited to him yelling at her to stay out of his room while he’s livestreaming.

When Evelyn meets Kyle (Billy Byrk), a sensitive teen boy who comes into the shelter with his mom Angie (Eleonore Hendricks), she is naturally drawn to him. Kyle is everything that Evelyn wished for in a son; kind, caring, and attentive to his mother’s needs. So she starts spending time with him, as a proxy for her own increasingly aloof offspring. Meanwhile, Ziggy is fixated only on gaining the attention of Lila (Alisha Boe), a politically-minded student at his school who he becomes obsessed with trying to impress, but has no real clue about any of the political or world issues that she talks about.

The implied sarcasm of the title is the point; these are deeply self-absorbed people who are so obsessed with their own sense of importance that they think they are saving the world. They are so stuck in their own worlds that Ziggy’s father and Evelyn’s husband, Roger (Jay O. Sanders), who seems to constantly be waiting for them at home with a glass of wine and a newspaper, barely even registers. But, as much as Eisenberg is poking fun at these privileged, upper middle class virtue-signallers, he also recognizes the neurosis and insecurities beneath this mindset.

The film has a satirical bent to it in its portrait of self-aggrandizing liberal do-gooders meddling in the lives of others to feel better about themselves, that is matched by the genuine sweetness of the ending. Eisenberg’s voice rings through in his often witty writing (we can practically hear some of Wolfhard’s line deliveries in his tone), and he also draws clear inspiration from Noah Baumbach’s 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, which helped launch his career as a young actor.

Yes, the characters can be mildly insufferable to spend time with, but the crisp writing keeps us engaged, and Eisenberg’s screenplay does reach some deeper truths about the desire for human connection. The dynamic between Evelyn and Kyle in particular, which stems from a well-meaning desire to reconnect with her own son, is a tricky one that Eisenberg handles quite deftly, even as Evelyn starts to overstep some boundaries.

While it could be said that When You Finish Saving the World offers pretty much exactly what you expect as a Sundance dramedy being put out by A24, it’s a confident and easily enjoyable debut film from Eisenberg, that doesn’t overstay its welcome at a well-paced 88 minutes. The performances by Moore and Wolfhard are also solid, as they believably bring these very specific personalities to life.

When You Finish Saving the World opens in limited release on January 27th at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Sphere Films.

Cast members Finn Wolfhard and Billy Bryk will be joining for two in-person Q&As at the 3:45 pm and 6:30 pm screenings on Friday, January 27th at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Review: To Leslie

January 25, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress nod for To Leslie was maybe the biggest surprise of this year’s Oscar nominations. Despite no real studio push behind the indie drama, she got in through a last minute campaign from her industry friends (including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Susan Sarandon), who started hosting screenings and posting about it on social media.

It surprised many that this fully grassroots campaigning tactic actually worked. But, after watching the film, Riseborough’s nomination actually makes a lot of sense. She delivers a blazing, emotionally charged performance as an addict in the process of self-destructing, wrestling with whether or not to accept her one last shot at redemption. I get why actors went for this.

Set against the backdrop of seedy bars and motels, and nicely complimented by an excellent country music soundtrack, To Leslie is an engaging, stripped down drama about tough characters living hard lives. Riseborough stars in the titular role of Leslie, a single mother in West Texas who we first meet in an old news clip as she celebrates having just won the lottery. We then cut to six years later, and Leslie is being kicked out of the motel she is staying at for not being able to pay the rent, having drank away all of her savings.

This sends Leslie bouncing between places with her pink suitcase in hand, as she continues to drink away every dollar she can scrounge up. She stumbles into the apartment of her now young adult son James (Owen Teague), but old wounds are opened back up. She goes back to her hometown to stay with old friends Dutch (Stephen Root) and Nancy (Allison Janney), but they are weary and tired after years of cleaning up after her. Leslie is given an opportunity for a second chance when she meets Sweeney (Marc Maron), a motel clerk who tries to break through to her.

Directed by Michael Morris, a TV director making his film debut, To Leslie is an example of a film that tells a somewhat familiar story but finds fresh nuance in its character-focused portrait of addiction and the challenges faced on the road to recovery. A big part of this is due to how well Riseborough embodies the title character. Riseborough’s performance keeps us engaged through the entire thing. We are with Leslie through the pain and struggle, and genuinely root for her to get better. She’s not an easy or even at times particularly likeable character, but we have empathy for her because we recognize her humanity; Riseborough ensures that we do.

With more of a push, I actually think that Maron could have been in the Supporting Actor conversation as well. He’s wonderful as Sweeney, a genuinely kind person extending a helping hand to someone who might not even be able to accept it. This is a small but gripping film that unfolds with the wistful sadness of a country song, guided every step of the way by Riseborough’s exceptional performance. It’s good to see her recognized for her work.

To Leslie is now available on a variety of Digital and VOD platforms.

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