A gritty little indie movie that could, To Leslie soars on the strength of Andrea Riseborough’s raw, gut-wrenching performance as a single mother who wins then squanders the once-in-a-lifetime lottery.
I’ve been a fan of Andrea Riseborough since Oblivion with Tom Cruise, where she somehow managed to elevate what on paper was a fairly generic, thankless supporting role. The English actress was likewise memorable and haunting playing the titular character in the surreal revenge tale Mandy, but until now I’ve never seen a movie with her front and centre. Hopefully, her marvellous performance in this small-budget indie which caused sensation (and a bit of frankly ridiculous controversy) by breaking Riseborough into the Academy Awards Best Actress category will elevate her profile.
Loosely based on a true story of a West Texas woman who won $190,000 in the state lottery, the movie catches up with Leslie five years after her ecstatic post-win TV interview, in which she waves the giant check and tells the reporter that she’s going to make a better life for herself and her son. Instead, Leslie squanders every dime on liquor and drugs, and now she’s virtually homeless and penniless, estranged from her parents and a massive embarrassment to her home town. Her attempt to crash at her grown son’s apartment likewise comes to an excruciating end, with James kicking his mother out after she steals cash for booze from his housemate.
With nowhere else to go, Leslie comes back home to face the simmering rage of her former friends, and seems to be teetering on the edge of complete obliteration when luck finally smiles at her. A pure chance puts her in the way of Sweeney (Marc Maron, one of the best things in the sadly cancelled GLOW TV series), a crusty but good-hearted motel manager who gives her a cleaning job and a place to stay. Could this be Leslie’s last chance to finally turn her life around?
I have to confess that a small part of me wasn’t quite buying the motel storyline – to me it felt almost too much like a fairytale compared to the brutally honest, unflinching realism of the movie’s previous third, a gritty fairytale maybe but still. I was able to make peace with it mostly thanks to the stellar cast, including the imperious and always-watchable Allison Janney and Andre Royo (who broke my heart as Bubbles in The Wire). There’s also a sense of the story being grounded in a very specific place, a working-class Southern town with its good and bad sides that comes vividly to life onscreen.
At the end of the day, a character study like this soars or crashes on the strength of its lead, and Riseborough’s brilliant, chameleon performance here is truly special. Leslie is a fascinating figure who can’t be easily pinned down: painfully haggard and worn down in the harsh light of day, and then almost beautiful and glamorous when she drinks and flirts at the bar; a manipulative alcoholic who repels and alienates people closest to her, a delusional screw-up basking in the fumes of her long-gone fame, and yet warm, charming and personable when she can just relax and enjoy herself in a company.
There are some remarkable scenes in which the camera stays with Leslie as you watch waves of conflicting emotions pass through her, and close-ups so full of raw vulnerability you momentarily forget Leslie’s appalling, self-destructive behaviour. Despite a few contrived beats along the way, I ultimately found Leslie’s redemptive story affecting and satisfying.