To Leslie features a familiar plot, but with enough flourishes (and poignant performances from Andrea Riseborough & Marc Maron) to leave a lasting impression.
That Andrea Riseborough is a tremendous talent and one of the most daring actresses of her generation is a fact few would dispute. From her side-splitting supporting role in The Death of Stalin to her towering leading turn in the thrilling Nancy to her dalliance in dark horror with the petrifying Possessor, she can pretty much do it all, never shying away from any part or picture, no matter how taxing or trying a task it might be. Though she hasn’t received the mainstream attention or acclaim she’s so justly deserved, when you’re an actress this audacious, that diligent dedication is bound to pay off someday, and with the tremendous To Leslie, Riseborough gives what may very well be her most powerful performance to date, in spite of all the stellar work she’s done before. While it remains to be seen whether the SXSW premiere will receive the platform such a stirring story as this should, Riseborough’s empathetic and engaging role warrants a watch regardless and more than makes the movie worth seeking out, as it already announces itself as one of the best performances we’ll see by a leading actress all year.
Riseborough plays the titular character, Leslie, a West Texas single mother who, many years prior to the events of the film, won the lottery but sadly squandered her earnings just as fast, abandoning promises to put the funds towards things that would better the life of her and her son James (Owen Teague, of It and The Empty Man) and instead wasting it all on booze. When we catch up with her, her charm has run out and she’s left with nowhere to go, forcing her to get in touch with her (now adult) son she left long ago to procure a place to stay. However, after her alcoholism ruins their relations, she’s onto the next house and so on and so forth. Eventually, with nowhere left to turn, she finds herself at a modest motel in the small town she once called home, where the meek manager, Sweeney (Marc Maron, of Joker and Respect), takes a chance on her when no one else will. Getting and staying sober is much easier said than done, but with a newfound determination to right the wrongs of the past and reverse the damage she’s done – and the compassion she receives from her connection to Sweeney – Leslie just might be able to do the impossible.
One wouldn’t be wrong to call the plot of To Leslie a tad played out at this point, with countless cliches (the alcoholic fuck-up from a simple-minded small town who keeps running out of second chances, etc.) but what makes this story special is the specifities of Leslie and her situation, and the refusal of the actors to play into convention or caricature. Writer Ryan Binaco fleshes out Leslie’s character beyond clichés by richly texturing her past and her relationships with both her son and others in the town that she had scorned (such as Allison Janney’s Nancy, a former friend turned chief foe following her fleeing from her family), and the cleverness with which he composes her conversations with Sweeney is equally enthralling, scripting a real adult romance that feels both theatrically rousing and tremendously realistic, simultaneously. However, no matter how stellar the script may be, Binaco’s work would be all for naught were he not graced with two terrifically talented actors to inhabit these intricately detailed individuals, and thankfully, he was given the great Andrea Riseborough and Marc Maron.
Riseborough is just plain riveting through and through from the first frame to the last here, wholly committing to this deeply complicated but still relentlessly compelling character and never shying away from her shortcomings but never judging her for these troubles either, always approaching Leslie from an affectingly sensitive angle. Even when she gives into blustery bombast, it never feels like “over-the-top” or “overdone” because there’s always something going on beneath the surface with Riseborough’s portrayal, and it’s always clear that this stormy showmanship is masking deeper darkness. And, when she sheds this façade in the second half and lets her sadness show, Riseborough is allowed to demonstrate exactly why she’s one of the best dramatic actresses working right now, mastering Binaco’s monologues and going toe-to-toe with Maron in their more challenging communions. Speaking of Mr. Maron, he undeniably holds his own against the indomitable Riseborough, playing the part of the compassionate caregiver to a touching tee, but slowly revealing his own sorrows over time as well, which leads to a charming and cathartic chemistry between he and Leslie as they find themselves able to relate to one another in a way that they can’t with anyone else in the world. Individually, Riseborough and Maron are magnificent, but the true magic happens when they inhabit the same scene and the sparks of their combined talents soar.
Overall, there’s just very little negative to say about the lovely To Leslie. At just under two hours, the picture is purposely paced with little lag time, and as mentioned before, even though the plot feels familiar at points, it comes with enough creative flourishes to leave a lasting impression regardless. Janney perhaps gets the most one-dimensional role in the cast – that of an occasionally cartoonish antagonist in Leslie’s life who refuses to let her achieve her redemption – but she shares a somber final scene with Riseborough in which she unleashes all her greatest attributes as an actress, while additionally setting up a ravishingly resonant resolution for Leslie that’s left better unspoiled (but you should for sure pack some tissues). In an industry inundated with IP, its these emotionally arousing adult dramas and strongly scripted character studies that we need more of in order to keep the art of authentic cinema and adventurous acting alive, and thank god for the talents of Andrea Riseborough and Marc Maron for making To Leslie a shining example of what this subgenre could – and should – still be.
To Leslie premiered at SXSW 2022 on March 12, 2022. Read our recommendations of films to watch at SXSW 2022!