THE STORY – Leslie, a West Texas single mother, struggles to provide for her son when she wins the lottery and a chance at a good life. But a few short years later the money is gone and Leslie is on her own living hard, she is forced to make a difficult choice.
THE CAST – Andrea Riseborough, Andre Royo, Owen Teague, Stephen Root, James Landry Hebert, Marc Maron & Allison Janney
THE TEAM – Michael Morris (Director) & Ryan Binaco (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 119 Minutes
Most Oscar pundits were shocked on January 24th when Andrea Riseborough secured an Oscar nomination. So much so that the surprise over the last few days has turned into a controversy about the institution of the Academy itself and what it means to secure such a nomination. But while the discussion will most likely continue long after this Oscar season, it is worth noting that Riseborough does, in fact, turn in a fabulous performance in this micro-budget independent film.
Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother from West Texas, just won the lottery of $190,000. She’s ecstatic about this life-changing win as she screams on the local news channel carrying around her gigantic check, claiming maybe to buy a house for her and her son. She seems…a little too happy. A combination of the euphoria of good luck combined with something else, and by the looks of her young son, it seems that, yes, something is off.
Cut to a few years later, Leslie is alone, broke, and homeless. All the money is long gone, and she is estranged from her son and everyone she once had a relationship with. She apparently has a serious drinking problem and cannot go a day without getting drunk. So much so that she chooses to spend money at the bar over everything else. Getting her next drink or enough money to afford her next drink is all that matters. One night, she sleeps outside of a motel managed by Sweeny (Marc Maron) and decides, against the advice from every local who knows Leslie, to give her a job in the hopes that kindness is all Leslie needs.
The words ‘disappears’ or ‘transform’ gets thrown around a lot when talking about performances. So much so that it can undermine the actual talent when one does, in fact, transform. With fifty-three completed acting credits to her name, Riseborough has become one of the invisible talents in modern cinema. Part of that is due to her other-worldly skill to seamlessly (yes, I’m going to say it) disappear into every role so well that she is unrecognizable from one role to the next. Jumping from genre to genre with the likes of “Possessor” and “Mandy,” to dark comedy in “The Death of Stalin” and “Birdman” and deep character pieces such as “Nancy,” it is apparent that Risborough can, literally, do it all and fit into any role in any time period, in any setting. It may take an investigation to fully understand that this is the same actress. Her 2022 credits alone also include “Matilda: The Musical,” “Please Baby Please,” and “Amsterdam.” Four very distinct films with four very different characters relying on very distinct skill sets. No matter the size or scope of the role, Riseborough finds a way to elevate it. If we were talking about her four weeks ago, we would state that she is one of the most underrated actors working today.
It seems weird to state that Riseborough turns in phenomenal work in “To Leslie” because she always turns in phenomenal work. One thing you can always count on is that Andrea Riseborough will be great. But with Michael Morris’ direction (in his feature directorial debut) and Ryan Binaco’s screenplay, Riseborough is allowed to fully live in Leslie’s world, something she is rarely allowed to do in her other projects, which results in one of her best performances to date. As an audience, we are entirely on the journey with Leslie. We see all her mistakes, imperfections, and failures, but we also see her heart. It takes an actor of Riseborough’s talent to elevate this material, which can easily fall into the cliques of a redemption story. But with Riseborough at the wheel, it rarely does. The most poignant scenes are of Leslie realizing she’s not as beautiful as she once was, her physical reaction to quitting cold turkey, the glimmer of hope that is so apparent in Leslie once the alcohol is out of her system, or her asking a random man at the bar if she’s beautiful. You feel for Leslie; you root for Leslie. But you never hate her or judge her. No matter the decision she makes, you are on her side.
But it’s not just Riseborough that turns in great work. Marc Maron as Sweeny is truly a delight. He is a phenomenal scene partner that cannot only play ball with Riseborough but also react and play the downbeat of a scene. Sweeny allows Leslie to breathe and doesn’t force her to confess all her wrongdoings as every other character she interacts with. His silence and acceptance of her are more than enough and provides the potential for a safe haven. By accepting and loving who she is, Sweeny gives her the strength and opportunity to, maybe one day, decide on her own to start anew.
“To Leslie” is the definition of an independent film. It was shot on film for 19 days, made its premiere at SXSW, played in a few select cities for a week, and then disappeared into the limbo of VOD. Yes, it is a simple story of redemption that viewers have seen countless times before and will probably see again. But the honesty in the direction, writing, and acting elevates it and makes it worth seeing. It is a strong character study that allows the audience to live with its central character and accompany them on their journey, like the films of the 1970s and 80s. Hollywood, especially big studios, simply don’t make films like these anymore, and hopefully, with so many eyes on this little film, there may (hopefully) be more.