Every gay has their actress, or at least the one that we consider “our own” in a way the mainstream doesn’t fully. Sure, we all generally love Gaga and Meryl and Glenn, and so many other classic gay icons, but we all have the niche “one” that is our fixation alone. My name is Hunter, I am a homosexual, and my icon is Andrea Riseborough. Since seeing her for the first time in the Sally Hawkins vehicle Made in Dagenham, I’ve been a huge fan of the underrated English actress’s presence in all of her roles, even her tiny ones. However, it wasn’t until her eponymous role in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy that I really got the feeling that she had found her stride. Since then, she has been on a stellar roll of fabulous leading roles in smaller festival favorites such as Nancy, Possessor, and the stellar Northern Irish film from last SXSW, Here Before. Now, returning to where she stomped so furiously last year, Riseborough takes on a different, but no less powerful leading role in Michael Morris’s To Leslie.
Leslie (Andrea Riseborough) is an alcoholic at the end of her rope. After squandering all of her lottery winnings on her addictions, abandoning her son six years prior, and bouncing around homes across Texas, scrounging together enough cash to buy more liquor, she’s hit a wall. As she attempts to make amends with her now grown son, James (Owen Teague), and former friends Dutch (Stephen Root) and Nancy (Allison Janney), her addiction still rules her life. After taking to the streets, she is offered a job and a room to live in as she finds her footing by the tough but understanding motel owner Sweeney (Marc Maron). While Leslie finds Sweeney initially grating, she soon discovers him to be the only person to ever believe in her ability to recover, and she sets on a tumultuous journey to make wrongs right.
On paper and in execution: yes, To Leslie is a pretty conventional story of addiction that feels very familiar to many other films regarding similar subject matter, but the difference with To Leslie is summed up in two concise words: Andrea Riseborough. Riseborough simply disappears into this role. While an actor more gung-ho on taking home a coveted Oscar for a flashy, Oscar-bait role might have really put forth a much bigger, louder performance, Riseborough’s camouflaging into the world of a downtrodden Texan woman is truly tremendous in how unpretentious it is. It’s sometimes hard to remember that Riseborough is indeed an English woman with a particularly substantial Newcastle accent by how naturally it all fades away here. It’s not the first time Riseborough has disappeared into a role, but it continues to be such a refreshing, purifying experience to see an actress act, as opposed to trying to chew as much scenery as possible to keep focus. It’s not the type of performance that boisterously gets awards come awards season, but it’s the type of acting that absolutely should.
Riseborough and Maron share a very spirited chemistry with one another, and it gives the film a sense of lovingness that more “trauma porn” heavy films might look to exploit a bit more shamelessly. There’s never a bit of this relationship I found forced or unnecessary, as its justifications advance the narrative of Leslie’s recovery far more than any romantic “awww” factor an audience might be seeking in a more marketable film than this one.
To Leslie, outside of Riseborough’s wondrously impressive performance, is a competent, if familiar affair. Director Michael Morris and writer Ryan Binaco hit all the standard beats for a film such as this, but it’s a tender, respectful look at the struggles of a lovable, if frustrating, woman looking to make amends for her wrongdoing. Regardless of its familiarity, there is still a very present spirit and heart to this film that never makes any of the beats feel at all insincere, as many films of this nature can fall into.
Luckily, To Leslie is also a very impressive looker of a drama as well. Larkin Seiple’s impressive 35mm cinematography gives the film an aesthetic life and texture that digital cinematography just can’t give a film like this. This is a gritty story that requires a gritty look, and the ugliness of the world of To Leslie doesn’t exist for the sake of ugliness, but rather to display a world that once had the promise of opportunity, beaten down by the tragedy of an ugly reality.
Listen, any movie that starts with “Here I Am” by Dolly Parton is a film already after my own heart, and any movie giving Andrea Riseborough the space to act her ass off in the nondescript way Riseborough knows how to perform best is a film gunning for my gay heart. There are pitfalls of a far more conventional film here, ones that are helped by a genuine sense of belief in the material from the game ensemble and the capable team behind the cameras. When it feels like you have To Leslie all figured out, there’s just that added layer of depth that keeps you, as an audience member, engaged with everything on such raw display here.
Screening during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
SXSW Screening Information:
*Saturday, March 12th, Screening @ 8:30 pm CT, Stateside Theatre
*Sunday, March 13th, Online Screening @ 9:00 am CT
*Tuesday, March 15th, Screening @ 12:45 pm CT, Alamo Lamar E
*Friday, March 18th, Screening @ 9:45 pm CT, Alamo Lamar A
For more information, head to the official SXSW webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.