Oct 24, 2022
By Kyle Mullin
To Leslie doesn’t just use outlaw country classics for its soundtrack. This drama’s eponymous character is practically living out the forlorn lyrics Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings as she struggles with alcoholism, homelessness, and fraying family ties. Star Andrea Riseborough’s shamelessly shambolic portrayal of Leslie will first move you, then make you feel every bruise on her tumble to rock bottom.
It’s certainly a steep fall. Leslie is a West Texan, hard-partying single mother who seemed to have her problems solved after winning the lottery. The movie opens with a montage of candid Polaroids that capture young Leslie’s endearing free spirit as she poses solo before lovingly hoisting her little boy. But in the subsequent scenes director Michael Morris (a director and producer of the Netflix series Bloodline, who gorgeously shot this movie on film) quickly makes us aware of how a much older Leslie not only squandered her winnings, but drank away enough money to be evicted. Worse still: Leslie is certain she has nowhere to turn but her now grown son. He lets her crash on his couch, on the condition she doesn’t drink.
It’s not a major spoiler to say that Leslie fails to keep that promise, because Riseborough so vividly conveys her disfunction. So Leslie chokes back her pride and calls upon the relatives who raised her son after her alcoholism grew unmanageable: Allison Janney’s Nancy and Stephen Root’s Dutch. Their Hell’s Angels style fashion choices and sneering demeanors initially make them feel like caricatures. Thankfully both actors are gifted enough to quickly tone down their performances and bring rich subtext to their interactions with Leslie, so much so that the years of pain and disappointment between them reverberate in the silences and long hard looks they exchange.
When Leslie not only burns but obliterates that bridge as well, she winds up homeless once again. That is, until two of the movie’s most well-rounded characters offer some much-needed levity. Andre Royo (famed as Bubbles from The Wire) is Royal, the co-owner of a motel whose affinity for LSD has left him loopy enough to occasionally howl at the moon. His partner at the dingy inn is Sweeney, played with heartwarming wholesomeness and wry melancholy by legendary standup and podcaster Marc Maron. The latter offers Leslie a job at the motel, despite the former’s objections (maybe the acid-dropper is the more sensible of the pair after all?).
And as Sweeney hilariously and heartbreakingly tries to fulfill his savior fantasies and woo Leslie with TV microwave dinners and a menial job that might get her back on her feet, the pair’s quirky chemistry gives the movie a unique dynamic. Prime example: when Sweeney recounts how his wife left him, and he and Leslie laugh about how their lives would be perfect fodder for a Willie Nelson deep cut. While the movie’s unwaveringly bleak script and direction, and Riseborough’s even deeper commitment, help To Leslie go toe-to-toe with other redemption-of-the-downtrodden dramas like The Wrestler or Crazy Heart, her scenes with Maron give the movie enough bittersweet humor to set it apart.
More impressive still: Riseborough is a British thespian who won a BAFTA for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, but is thoroughly convincing here as a West Texas barfly. Hers is among the year’s very best performances. Maron’s legions of diehard fans will also be delighted to see him hold his own with the esteemed Riseborough, despite admitting on his podcast to being an insecure late bloomer who only began taking acting seriously in his 50s. His southern drawl here is subtle and convincing, and his haplessly sweet demeanor is a successful departure from the exaggerated versions of himself in the Netflix series Glow or his show Maron. They’ll have you rooting for Leslie and Sweeney despite their flaws, in the same way a timeless country ballad breaks your heart while leaving you humming along. (www.momentumpictures.net)
Author rating: 8/10
Rate this movie
No ratings have been recorded yet.