To Leslie is an immersive experience into one family’s journey through the ruinous entanglement of addiction. It’s not an easy film to watch, especially the first half.
The film is an accurate and impactful portrait of a deadly disease, and all we can hope for during the first half of this film is that the title character lives through it. Be prepared for some deep catharsis but stick with it. Above all this film is about hope.
Andrea Riseborough (Amsterdam, 2022) stars as Leslie, an end-stage alcoholic who has reached the point of spiritual bankruptcy.
She is unable to envision a future different from the present, has lost all ability to make better choices and is oblivious to the affects her choices have on the people she loves. Riseborough dives deeply into the hopeless/helpless underbelly of addictive self-destruction.
She gives a career defining performance for which she has received an Oscar nomination for best actor. Many industry insiders believe she has a chance to win, despite this year’s fierce competition.
In the opening scene we meet Leslie and her 13-year-old son James played by Owen Teague (It, 2017) accepting a $190,000 check that she has just won in the Texas Lottery.
The scene is brief, but effectively sets up the story. Her son looks worried, the town square is filled with locals cheering her on and Leslie briefly expresses hope for a better life before ecstatically announcing drinks are on her! The crowd erupts as if raising a toast, To Leslie.
Much of this story unfolds from the perspective of her adult son, James, now 19, whom she abandoned years earlier.
When Leslie finally hits bottom and is homeless, James, now living on his own in a new town, reluctantly picks Leslie up from the bus station. The arrangement with James is short-lived. He soon asks his “chosen family” back home, Nancy and Dutch, for help. Soon Leslie is back on the bus to her hometown with plans to stay with them
Allison Janney (West Wing, series 1999) costars as James’s friend Nancy and Stephen Root (Barry) as Dutch. They took James in when Leslie was too sick with drinking to parent him years ago.
Nancy and Dutch take a “tough love” approach to Leslie and soon she is out on the street again. Nancy is fiercely protective of James and sternly impatient with Leslie.
Riseborough and Teague’s on-screen relationship is tender, though conflicted. They also played opposite of each other as mother and son in the series Bloodline (2015) which may contribute to their on-screen intimacy. Director Michael Morris also worked with them previously during three episodes of Bloodline.
Leslie and redemption?
By now, Leslie has nary a friend in her ghost-laden hometown. One morning Sweeney (comedian Mark Maron) encounters Leslie passed out from the night before on the grounds of an old hotel he runs. Sweeney is soft spoken and kind, and he hires Leslie to clean vacant hotel rooms.
Her alcoholism precludes her ability to do the job, but for reasons unknown to us till later, Sweeney gives her room to fail and several chances to start again, while Leslie continues to drink till drunk every night, spending every dime she makes at dive bars.
One night, alone, drunk, and despondent, she’s the only one left at the bar, and she hears the repeating lyrics of a quintessential Willie Nelson drinking song: Are you sure this is where you want to be? In these last-call moments, Leslie has what can only be called a spiritual awakening.
What happens next is worth the price of all the raw, sad and hopeless scenes that preceded it.
Riseborough has stated in interviews that immediately after reading the screenplay by Ryan Binaco (Pandemic, 2016), she “felt the bones” of this story and jumped right in. She is also among the team of executive producers.
Binaco has shared that the screenplay is based on family experiences. He brings authenticity and a deep understanding of addiction dynamics to this screenplay.
This is the first feature film for director Morris (Better Call Saul, series 2015). He handles the difficult disease of alcoholism with its socially challenging cluster of symptoms without sentimentality or judgment. Morris directs with compassion and lingering hope. Though we may be tempted, we never really leave Leslie’s corner.
To Leslie was shot in LA in just 19 days. That may be why the performances feel so raw and urgent.
Coproducer and casting director Arlie Day (Brothers and Sisters, Series 2006) gets it right every time. Academy Award winner Janney is flawlessly cast as Nancy. In many ways she is the backbone of the story. Maron, in a rare dramatic role, is Riseborough’s perfect karmic match, and is most definitely the heart of the story. He is bound to get a boatload of dramatic offers after this achievement.
To Leslie is a stark reminder to keep putting one foot in front of the other despite life’s darkest moments, for anything is possible. And angels may walk among us.
To Leslie runs one minute shy of two hours. It is a low-budget film that had a short run in theaters. It is currently available for paid streaming on Apple TV, Prime, You Tube, Good movies and Vudu.
I have been intrigued by what I have read and heard about this movie, but I haven’t wanted to watch it until this excellent review by Doris Popovich. I appreciate her thorough research that goes beyond what most other critics
Doris Popovich has a genius for getting me to see movies I’d rather avoid. That’s the ultimate reviewer gift.