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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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