To Leslie review: Andrea Riseborough is remarkable
Ivan Radford | On 12, Mar 2023
Director: Michael Morris
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Marc Maron, Andre Royo, Owen Teague
It’s hard to think of a time when the word “squandered” has been more resoundingly, heartbreaking captured on screen than in To Leslie. The film follows Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a single mum who wins almost $200,000 in the Texas lottery. Fast forward five years and she’s broke, having spent everything on drink and drugs. She’s lost her money, her home and her son, James (Owen Teague), whose birthday gave her the winning number.
We pick things up as she tries to reconnect with the estranged James, crashing on the sofa in the flat he shares with a friend. But while this is undoubtedly a redemption story we’re watching, it immediately becomes clear that To Leslie isn’t about to offer us – or her – an easy route to that hopefully upbeat ending. Screenwriter Ryan Binaco, who wrote the film as a love letter to his own mother, resists simple cliches or quick resolutions, grounding Leslie’s journey in everyday challenges and complicated ties.
As she racks up missed opportunity after missed opportunity, she winds up moving back home, where she finds a far from warm welcome. Notorious in the town, the shame and regret she carries around has detonated even her ties with old friends Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root), who don’t know what to do with her anymore – they oscillate between trying to show tough love and remembering their own role in encouraging her partying lifestyle.
The film’s superbly observed relationships are full of such thorny details, and director Michael Morris (a producer on Better Call Saul) succeeds in sitting back and letting us soak up the compelling, heartfelt character work. That peaks when Leslie gets a job cleaning a motel run by the sympathetic Sweeney (Marc Maron), and we see the two begin to bond as she learns to communicate and open up.
Marc Maron brings a gruff humanity and understated kindness to his grizzly boss, treating Leslie with enough respect that it allows her to reclaim her own dignity. It’s a generous performance that allows Andrea Riseborough to shine in the central spotlight.
And shine she does, delivering a turn that’s remarkable in its raw sincerity. She has an uncomfortable quality that suggests she’s still in shock at her own behaviour and situation, even as she masks it with layers of anger, resentment and guilt. As she becomes increasingly vulnerable and lets her guard down, her facial expressions change entirely, and Leslie’s boisterous, charismatic persona is replaced by something more charmingly genuine. The compassionate direction and writing gives us an underlying sense that Leslie’s struggles with addiction might have happened regardless of her lottery win, and the more Leslie moves away from the news reports that dogged her sudden fortune, the more she rediscovers herself.
Things are wrapped up perhaps a little too neatly come the final scenes, but Riseborough’s committed performance makes sure we don’t forget everything that’s led up to that point – or that the road Leslie’s on has many more miles to go. As a story of recovery and redemption, To Leslie is a familiar but moving watch. As a showcase for one of Britain’s finest and most chameleonic actors, it doesn’t squander a single moment.