When she won $190,000 in a lottery, Leslie (Andrea Riseborough) knew that life as she knew it was about to change forever. And sure enough, it did—just not in the way she was expecting. Michael Morris’ To Leslie picks up seven years after Leslie’s big win. Having blown through all of her winnings, she is gaunt, haggard, alone and in the process of getting booted from her new home: A dingy motel on the side of the West Texas highway. With nowhere else to turn, Leslie goes to stay with her estranged son, 19-year-old James (Owen Teague), who immediately seems uncomfortable by her presence. When mom comes to visit, that means something is really, really wrong.
We first get some insight into what happened to Leslie’s money when James lays down the ground rules for her stay. You can’t stay here forever, he says, and, above all, no drinking. It turns out that that last request is a bit of a tall order for Leslie, who quickly ends up back on the street.
Quickly running out of options, she reluctantly returns to her dreary hometown. There, she embarks on a somber, harrowing odyssey that forces her to contend with the oppressive realities of her alcoholism, guilt and regret. Leslie’s journey is at once unflinchingly intimate, aching and melancholy—qualities accentuated by Larkin Seiple’s sublime cinematography, which resembles a somber travelogue.
When crafting a two-hour, close-up portrait of an addict’s gruesome sufferings, it’s difficult not to be either condescending, cloyingly sentimental or both (see: Hillbilly Elegy). But To Leslie falls victim to no such trap. Indeed, this is not your average tale of lower-class hardship. For the majority of the film, Leslie doesn’t act how we expect her to. She consistently uses her wit and savvy to get off the streets, but refuses to act in a way that keeps her off of them. So what is it, exactly, that Leslie really wants? It’s hard to tell; but whatever it is, she yearns for it with all of her heart.
The refreshing complexities of To Leslie’s protagonist are bolstered by Riseborough’s remarkable performance, one of the best of the year. In each deafening close-up, she conveys a complex sequence of emotions. The camera focuses on her when James gets in a fight in his apartment hallway, Leslie’s face communicating fear, avoidance and guilt all in a matter of seconds. Later, when she asks the handsome stranger at the bar to tell her she’s a good person, it’s shame, frustration and hopefulness.
To complement Leslie is a script that similarly refuses to lean into any kind of convention. While To Leslie centers around the mysterious something Leslie did to upend her once-hopeful life, screenwriter Ryan Binaco avoids expository like the plague. Instead of building the script around a big, cathartic event (discovering what Leslie did to squander her lotto earnings, for example, or maybe some epic altercation), he assures us that Leslie—with all of her flaws and inconsistencies—is the event.
This doesn’t mean the story always works. As the third act comes to a close, To Leslie veers into predictability until it eventually mutates into a perfectly-packaged ending with a ribbon on top. But at that point, the characters are so well-developed, the story so emotionally potent, that clichés aren’t all that vexing.
Leslie isn’t the only character that the audience will inevitably grow attached to throughout the course of the film. Marc Maron empathetically plays a motel owner called Sweeney who seems to be the only person left in Texas with any sympathy for Leslie. But Sweeney contains multitudes, too. He isn’t just a blindly well-intentioned sucker—he knows that his gold heart could get him into trouble; that his good will is a vice to him just like booze is to Leslie.
Like Sweeney, To Leslie doesn’t pretend to have the answers for Leslie—or anyone, for that matter. It simply tells her story, with all of its ugliness and tedium. Telling the tale of an undeniably flawed protagonist without offering much commentary on the matter is a heroic feat in itself, and it’s really Morris who won the lottery when securing Riseborough as his Leslie.
Director: Michael Morris
Writers: Ryan Binaco
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Allison Janney, Marc Maron, Andre Royo, Owen Teague, Stephen Root
Release Date: October 7, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.