To Leslie: Film Review | SXSW 2022
Andrea Riseborough stars in Michael Morris’ debut feature as a woman forced to return to her West Texas hometown as she’s hitting bottom.
In the brief, sharp prologue of To Leslie, the title character’s celebratory whoops are understandable. She’s won the lottery to the tune of $190,000 — enough of a jackpot to make a difference for a working-class single mother in small-town West Texas. And yet there’s something strained and desperate about her excitement before the TV cameras, a signal that she’s not about to steer herself and her teenage son onto Easy Street. And so it goes: As the finely observed drama’s main action begins, six years later, Leslie is down and out. Drinking hard and all but estranged from her son, she’s being tossed out of the motel where she’s living. She does not go quietly.
Leslie is played to riveting perfection by Andrea Riseborough, who appears in nearly every scene and
delivers a performance that’s extraordinary in its moment-to-moment sparks of hope against hope and slow-dawning self-awareness amid the despair, dissembling and self-delusion. To Leslie is a movie about hitting bottom but also a story steeped in grace — and even, within its understated, lived-in aesthetic, tinged with a bit of fairy tale, Prince Charming arriving in the form of a low-key and affecting Marc Maron.
Working from a screenplay that Ryan Binaco (3022) wrote as an unflinching tribute to his mother, helmer Michael Morris, who brings extensive experience directing and producing episodic television to his feature debut (his credits include Better Call Saul, Billions, Shameless, House of Cards and Bloodline), doesn’t strike a false note. The observational drama unfolds in an unspecified pre-digital era, brought to life by powerhouse performances as well as the superb design work of Emma Rose Mead and Nancea Ceo. A stirring character study captured in intimate 35mm by DP Larkin Seiple and sensitively edited by Chris McCaleb, To Leslie recalls the grit of 1970s American indie cinema at its most indelible.
The opening-credits sequence of stills relays the basics of Leslie’s life — high school exuberance, young motherhood, abusive relationship. Now the baby-pink suitcase that contains all her worldly possessions emblemizes her aloneness but also serves as a kind of talisman, marking a connection, however tenuous, to her past.
Among its contents is a tattered sheet of paper bearing handwritten contact information for James (Owen Teague), her 19-year-old son, who’s working construction in a big, unnamed city. He meets her there at the end of her bus ride, practically crouching in the shadows before he approaches her. Wounded wariness in his every glance, Teague wordlessly communicates his character’s trepidation and his love. James is worried about his mother but also about himself, having borne the fallout of Leslie’s selfish whims and alcoholism at a young age.
James sets some ground rules — key among them: No drinking — that Leslie promptly breaks, rifling for cash through the dresser of his roommate, Darren (Catfish Jean, delivering a brief but memorable turn). Our contemporary understanding of addiction as an illness notwithstanding, To Leslie doesn’t soft-pedal how disruptive and destructive addicted people can be, how impossible to be around. Encouraged by Darren and with an assist from the police — and rousing feelings in the audience that might be as conflicted as his own — James sends his mother back to her Texas hometown. It’s the place she dreads most in the world; within its narrow perimeters her past deeds and their repercussions will be hard to escape, and she’s at a point where, if she had a list of priorities, taking responsibility for her actions would not be among them.
Back home, she’s haunted and haunting. There’s nothing but bad blood between her and the formerly close friends who take her in at James’ request, Dutch (Stephen Root) and Nancy (a ferocious Allison Janney). Without lapsing into backstory overload, the movie gradually and effectively uncovers the reasons for the couple’s feelings, and their depth. Dutch is a man of few words, but the ones he summons soon after Leslie’s arrival make things pretty darn clear: “Ain’t no one taking your shit a second time.” The more hardened Nancy takes seemingly perverse pleasure in taunting Leslie, as does her friend Pete (James Landry Hébert, of 1883). Nancy bites into flavorful putdowns, among them a description of Leslie as “rode hard and hung up wet.” Janney’s knockout portrayal makes the vindictive anger fully felt — and eventually, no less so, the hurt behind it.
Among the film’s most piercing scenes are a couple of doozies set in the local watering hole, where Leslie gravitates to slake her thirst and to escape the judgment of her grudging hosts. Binaco, Morris and Riseborough are attuned to the bar as a place of solace and of performance, a cocoon of darkness against poorly stashed-away pain. Fueled by alcohol and believing her seductive charms are still alive and well, Leslie works it hard, and Riseborough is fearless in the unlovely desperation that emerges. Leslie’s attempted seduction of an exceedingly polite cowboy (Scott Subiono) doesn’t end as she hopes, but by the time, much later in the film, that she fields the come-on of a young stud (Matt Lauria), she’s no longer playing a game; she’s the one who sees straight through someone else’s.
She reaches that point of understanding thanks to Sweeney (Maron), a stranger who enters her life not in the protective gloom of a bar but in the cleansing glare of morning, on the grounds of the motel he manages at the edge of town, near the railroad tracks. Brutal evidence notwithstanding, Leslie has somehow expected the universe to meet her halfway. Call it storytelling contrivance, serendipity, blind luck or ineffable mercy, but in Sweeney, it does that and more.
In their first encounter, after he discovers Leslie and her pink suitcase on the motel property, he chases her away. The second time he confronts her, he impulsively offers her a job and a place to stay. Perhaps he sees the bedraggled stranger differently after hearing motel owner Royal (a terrific Andre Royo, of Empire), a town native like Leslie, mention her “real sad story.” Whatever his reasons in the moment, it’s clear that extending a helping hand to Leslie infuses Sweeney’s days with a long-missing sense of purpose. Something in him lights up, clear and true.
As the two actors slowly build a profound bond between their characters, the screenplay provides a backstory for Sweeney as well as for Leslie, but more as shading than narrative crutch. In a Southern-twanged change of pace from his often sardonic screen roles, Maron is a guileless but wise guardian angel, watching Leslie flail and lie and struggle, and keeping close while she suffers through cold-turkey withdrawal from alcohol. A dinner scene that finds them side by side at TV tray tables is miraculous in its quiet emotion, capped by a burst of diegetic music that delights and surprises the characters as well as the audience.
In another instance of within-the-setting music, the Willie Nelson song “Are You Sure” plays during a barroom’s last call, and it’s so on the money for Leslie’s at-loose-ends circumstances that she has to laugh — but Morris and Riseborough also let us see how the lyrics’ message of loneliness seeps in. The soundtrack makes apt use of tracks by George Jones and Waylon Jennings, and Linda Perry contributes a new tune, sung over the closing credits by Patty Griffin, that sums up the uncommon benevolence Leslie experiences.
The Dolly Parton track that opens the film suggests a theme of sorts at this year’s SXSW; Narrative Feature Competition entry Seriously Red centers on the Parton ethos and aesthetic, and Parton herself is a key figure in the Documentary Spotlight title Still Working 9 to 5. That theme might be a celebration of female gumption, resilience and humor — qualities that the title character of To Leslie embodies, against the odds and against expectations. Riseborough digs deep and takes no shortcuts in tracing a hard-won path to redemption, the rage that holds Leslie back transformed into the energy that fuels her survival.
Royal, an acid casualty whose habits are strange and insights soulful, rebukes Leslie at one point that “some people can’t see a good thing when it’s dropped on their plate.” Beginning at the darker end of the emotional spectrum and working its way toward a brighter place, Morris’ drama reveals someone learning to see, and Riseborough’s portrayal is an unfolding, alive with flickering rough edges.
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