- Movie Rating -

To Leslie (2022)

| February 18, 2023

Let us, first, deal the controversy over the Oscar campaign that boosted Andrea Riseborough to a Best Actress nomination.  I have to admit that I entered into To Leslie with fists balled up, waiting to dismiss her in the wake of the non-nominations for Viola Davis for The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler for Till which the campaign allegedly forced out of the running.  How do I see the virtues through the murk?  Were the campaigning practices on the up and up?  Does Riseborough even deserve to be here?

All of those objections wash away very early in To Leslie, a tiny character drama about personal ruin, redemption and renewal, led by a brilliant, unsympathetic performance by Riseborough that, yes, deserves to be here.  It’s not a good performance, it’s a great performance, deserving of its accolade.  If there is any justice given to cinema history, her performance will be named along the likes of Nicholas Cage, Albert Finney, Jack Lemmon and Ray Milland, all of whom gave masterful performances playing alcoholics.  She’s that good.

Shedding all pretenses of offering a character who is lovable or even tolerable, Riseborough plays Leslie Rowland, a functioning alcoholic whose life is seen over the opening credits as having been a roller coaster of dissipating hope.  Her early life involved graduation from high school, a party lifestyle, marriage, the birth of a son, domestic violence, divorce, and an endless flood of alcohol.  Seven years ago she won the local lottery, a jackpot of $190,000 which we see her celebrating on the local news in all her Woo Girl glory.  We aren’t surprised that when we catch up with her, the money has been pissed away and her life is a never-ending series of burnt bridges, broken promises and persistent requests from those in her immediate circle to please just go away.

Chances at redemption don’t seem to ring with the bell of clarity, only temporary lodgings and opportunities to get out of the gutter that she will inevitably screw up.  Her method of means is to stroll into a local bar and hook up with a guy, not for sex, but for a place to say, possibly money, more booze or whatever goods and services she can ring out of the poor sap before he gets fed up and shows her the door.  Early on, she is thrown out of her rental motel, moves in with her now-grown son James (Own Teague) and immediately breaks his one and only rule: don’t drink.  Breaking faith with her son for perhaps the umpteenth time, he completely dismisses her from his life.

Of course, the normal tenant for a film like this is to ask the inevitable: How far down does she have to go before she reaches the point of impact, the moment of clarity when she realizes that her luck has completely run out.  In these early passages, we cannot like Leslie in any real capacity because she has long since given up any measure of personal pride, any hope that her she will mend her broken promises.  It is to Riseborough’s credit that for the film’s first half she plays Leslie as a complete jerk.  She isn’t afraid to look foolish, and that’s admirable.

Moving back to her hometown, the place where she won that long-gone jackpot, Leslie hooks up with a former friend Nancy (Alison Janney) and her boyfriend Dutch (Stephen Root) who give her the same rulebook as James and the results are exactly the same – this is routine.  Homeless, she is found asleep outside a run-down motel and is mistaken for a woman who has been persistently calling about a job.  The genial manager, Sweeney (beautifully played by comedian Marc Maron), gives her the job as a maid. At first, this seems to ring with the same familiarity, but this time something is different as Sweeney’s forgiving good nature eventually becomes something that she can no longer exploit.  It’s the longest stay that she’s ever had with anyone and it is perhaps this that brings her to that moment.

In a quietly beautiful moment Leslie sits in a bar after last call and suddenly Willie Nelson’s “Are You Sure This is Where You Want to Be?” starts drifting slowly out of the jukebox.  The sad poetry of the song is pointed so directly at Leslie’s life that she snickers.  “Is this a joke?”  Then the lyrics sink in.  The camera draws toward her.  There is a stillness in her eyes.  She says not a word.  She stares off into space, captured by the near-cosmic commentary of the words that she hears.  Leslie’s moment of clarity has come at last. 

What happens after is hard to discuss without giving away the film’s great drama.  Suffice to say that this movie is a journey of a worthless drunk who sees the clouds parting.  The Leslie we meet after she has wasted the prize money is not the Leslie that we see as the movie draws to a close.  There is a period of growth.  The ending perhaps closes too firmly around her situation.  It draws to a happy ending the offers very little of the reality that Leslie’s has a lot of mending to do.  I admit, I was caught up in it.  Yes, it plays too actorly, too convenient, but in my heart it felt earned.  Riseborough gives us the portrait of a withering soul whose sense of priority is mended by the reality of what has come before, by the bridges she has burned, and the words of a sad country song.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Drama