SXSW Movie Review: ‘To Leslie’

Greetings again from the darkness. We have all heard the stories of lottery winners who blow the entire pot and end up back where they started, or sometimes even worse off. There is also no shortage of stories where alcoholism ruins lives and relationships. Director Michael Morris’ first feature film combines the two elements in a script by Ryan Binaco, who based the lead character on his own mother. The two men have done their work well and, in a way, win their own lottery by having cast Andrea Riseborough in the lead. Ms. Riseborough has long been labeled underrated, but I believe the more accurate label is underappreciated.

Small town Texan Leslie (Riseborough) is seen celebrating her $190,000 lottery win by lifting the giant check for TV cameras. She admits to picking her son’s birthday as the winning number and says her plan is to buy a house and open a diner … right after she buys the first round at the local bar. We then flash forward six years to find Leslie homeless, having just been evicted from a fleabag motel. Toting her pink suitcase, she is forced to trace her steps back to the bridges still smoldering from her past actions. She tracks down her son James (Owen Teague, IT), whom she abandoned years ago.

Of course it doesn’t take long for Leslie to break James’ one house rule of ‘no drinking’, and soon he is shipping her back to their hometown to stay with the friends who raised James. Nancy (Oscar winner Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root) are a biker couple still upset with Leslie’s actions from years ago, but willing to give her a roof over her head. Leslie is a master of saying the right thing, but never doing the right thing. She can sweet talk anyone who might buy her next drink, but her history is one of burning bridges and leaving a wake of shattered emotions.

Leslie is an uncontrollable alcoholic and she’s self-destructive, but not in a LEAVING LAS VEGAS way. We sense that in her lucid moments … when she’s not screaming at someone or flirting for a drink … that she does want to be a better person and live a better life. It takes local motel manager Sweeney (Marc Maron) to give her a real shot at cleaning up. Literally cleaning up, as she’s hired to clean the motel rooms. Sweeney’s patience with Leslie stems from his past, and it’s as painful to watch his efforts as it is to watch Leslie’s swings. Andrea Riseborough delivers a raw and riveting performance – one worthy of awards consideration. She captivates us with an emotional and physical performance. Director Michael Morris has directed some terrific TV episodes for shows like “Better Call Saul”, “Bloodline”, “Animal Kingdom”, and “House of Cards”, and this film leaves us with hope that the support of one person can make a difference for someone in desperate need of help.

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