There’s a real market for films showing the lower orders wallowing in a misery of their own making. To Leslie looks like the familiar offer – feckless blue-collar gal wins big on the lottery, then pisses it all away in a hedonistic splurge. The message of films like this, usually covert, is: leave money to those who already have it.
Michael Morris’s film avoids a lot of the pitfalls of the genre by concentrating not on the fall but on the bounce along the bottom. He introduces Leslie (Andrea Riseborough) in archive local TV news footage, ecstatically receiving a gigantic lottery cheque and squealing in redneck excitement before he cuts to the present day.
Leslie has indeed pissed it all away, and stuck it up her nose, and as we meet her she’s trying to reconnect with her estranged son (Owen Teague), who is taking his errant wandering mother in on the understanding that she stays off the booze. An understanding she’s soon violated, and so off she goes again, back to the Texas town where she grew up, and where everyone disdainfully remembers her as the lottery winner who made a complete mess of her good fortune.
The film is obvious Oscar bait. Whether this is a calculated bid for awards glory by Riseborough or not, it is precisely the sort of role the Academy favours. Putting that less snottily – how good Riseborough is as Leslie. She throws herself at her character with a physical dedication that’s almost terrifying to watch. She looks properly like a long-term boozer – skinny, sweaty, blotchy and gurning the way incorrigible drinkers seem to.
It’s a brilliant performance, and in an actors film it’s bolstered by a cast who really know their stuff, from the nailed-on certs of the likes of Allison Janney and Stephen Root as her onetime friends, to Owen Teague as her damaged son, and Andre Royo and Marc Maron as the guys running a motel who offer Leslie another shot at life and a new community to connect to.
Maron’s Sweeney is particularly key in Leslie’s story, and Maron seems to be having a career moment as he approaches 60. If you saw him in the underrated David Bowie film Stardust (underrated because it wasn’t on its knees in the “we’re not worthy” crouch) you’ll know what I mean. He was the quiet emotional centre of that film too.
Leslie is a closed book. Writer/director Morris doesn’t try to particularly explain or excuse her. An ugly back story is hinted at but nothing more. She’s a mess and the only person who can sort her out is herself.
Will she? Chase-to-the-bottom movies are grim to watch but To Leslie has a thriller-ish aspect. Leslie is already at the bottom. She can go further down, and fall off the world entirely, into total homelessness and a supermarket trolley full of her worldly goods, and that’s the edge that Morris keeps Leslie dangling on for almost the entire duration of the film. And even when it looks like things might be on the up again, and happiness and a degree of stability are within her grasp, he keeps us hanging.
Morris is best known for TV shows with a bit of edge – Kingdom, Billions, Better Call Saul – and it’s the edge that keeps this watchable all the way through, the will she/won’t she.
It’s written by Ryan Binaco, who to date is most associated with apocalyptic dramas, like 2016’s Pandemic (a prescient, fast-paced piece of sci-fi horror no one really saw), or 3022 (astronauts discover the Earth has been wiped out). Here he’s internalised the devastation and turned the volume down. To Leslie is the visual equivalent of a country music song about disappointed blue-collar lives – both Willie and Waylon are name-checked.
Overlong maybe? Maybe. But it’s To Leslie’s only real flaw. It all really depends on your appetite for misery.
I am an Amazon affiliate