To Leslie sent my thoughts back to a similar film, Hillbilly Elegy. In that middling, piddling, manipulative hooey, millionaire actors slap on prosthetics and moth-eaten flannel. For two hours, they bark at each other in flimsy redneck accents in a blatant attempt to chase down Oscars. It was hollow, predictable, poorly-written tripe, a fact made even crazier by the story’s real-life origins.
By contrast, To Leslie is what Elegy dreamed it could be: Raw, heart-wrenching, and with the relentless sting of truth, this is a powerful examination on the ravages of addiction and the healing power of patience and kindness. This probably won’t win any Oscars, but I think it should.
As with Elegy, this film derives from real events. The opening credits show us Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a white-trash woman caught in a spin cycle of abuse and misery. This sadness gets broken up by a moment of genuine jubilation: She plays the lotto, using her teenage son’s birthday as the numbers, and wins a $190,000 jackpot. As Leslie makes big plans and howls with glee, I couldn’t help but remember the Oscar Wilde quote: “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.”
Cut to six years later. Leslie has long pissed away all that money in a haze of booze and blow. She gets bounced from a dingy motel for skipping out on the bills. As she assembles her tattered belongings and storms out in bratty petulance, we really get to see her for the first time: Leslie looks exhausted, gaunt, and old before her time. When she pulls out a crumpled sheet listing people she can turn to, most of the names have already been scratched.
In her desperation, Leslie reaches out to one of the most difficult names remaining—her son, James (Owen Teague). He’s barely twenty, but her flaws have aged him, as well. James greets her with weary affection. He loves his mother, but is also aware of how radioactive she can be. James lets Leslie move in, but he lays down one law: No booze. Predictably, she lasts less than one night. After he catches her stealing from his roommate and gulping pints of vodka, James gives his mom the heave. Just like that, one more name gets scratched.
Leslie reluctantly returns to her podunk town, where she’s long been the brunt of snickering jokes. “Is it true you won the lottery?” Kids ask, giggling. “I heard it all went up your nose!” She moves in with Dutch (Stephen Root) and Nancy (Allison Janney), a salty, middle-aged couple who’ve known Leslie long enough to regard her with well-earned cynicism. They’re stricter than James: Not only must Leslie lay off the sauce, she has to work for her room and board. Still, Dutch and Nancy know that neither will happen. Leslie will inevitably break their hearts. Again. Two more names.
Now, after years of taking on water, Leslie’s life finally thunks onto the ocean floor. It’s here that director Micheal Morris and writer Ryan Binaco slowly steer the film in a heartwarming, life-affirming direction. I don’t want to spoil too much of the film’s second half, except to say a kindly motel manager (Marc Marion) takes pity on Leslie. He becomes her benefactor and guardian angel. Over time, the two strike up a genuine friendship.
Along this journey, Morris and Binaco make sure there’s not a false note anywhere. I worked in the alcohol industry for many years, and I’ve seen many people like Leslie. This film is unflinching in its depiction of the despondency and destitution someone in her situation experiences. Even worse, her sadness and rage metastasize to everyone who cares about her. Everywhere she goes, Leslie is emotional poison.
As Leslie, Riseborough delivers a performance for the ages. With her wild-eyed ferocity, Leslie is broken, brittle, but not completely irreparable. Even in her deepest darkness, we can’t help but root for her redemption. Seriously, this is some of the best work I’ve seen all year, and I hope she takes home the Oscar.
The other players aren’t far behind her. Teague gives James a warm current of humanity, despite the fact he’s had to grow up way too fast. Janney’s about one notch away from a full-on villain, but she always knows when to shift into a lower gear. (Unlike Amy Adams and Glenn Close in Elegy, who were shamelessly hammy.) Finally, Maron gives his kindly motel manager a well-worn likability. His laid-back charm and patient attitude are a crucial balance to Leslie’s volcanic mood swings.
When I sit down to watch a movie, I try to know as little about it as possible. (I even avoid the poster, if I can help it.) Movies like To Leslie are a perfect example why: This film surprised me with its alternating swaths of humor and tragedy, leading to an emotional payoff that’s both moving and well-earned. To Leslie is one of the year’s best films.
119 min. R. On demand.