The Last-Minute Oscar Contender Deserves All the Praise

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Over the last week, you may have seen some of your favorite celebrities plugging a movie you’ve never even heard of with the fervent passion they usually reserve for holiday cards or caffeinated beverages. Stars with huge industry cachet like Jane Fonda, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sarah Paulson have flocked to social media to buoy To Leslie, a shoestring-budget 2022 film that they believe should be up for consideration among Academy voters ahead of next week’s Oscar nominations. And more than just the movie itself, they’re bandying about its star, Andrea Riseborough.

The film, in which Riseborough plays an alcoholic single mother struggling to put her life together after winning the lottery, earned rave reviews from critics last year. Despite the praise, it earned a paltry box office total of less than $30,000 worldwide, and had all but faded from the conversation following its March 2022 release.

And now, nearly a year later, celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon too. “[I was] bowled over by Andrea Riseborough’s brave and unsparing performance,” Fonda wrote on Instagram. Paltrow and her friend Demi Moore even screened the film together with Riseborough and director Michael Morris in attendance, which they then posted about on their respective Instagram accounts. Naturally, Twitter has taken notice too, memeing Sarah Paulson’s claims that To Leslie is a “small film with a giant heart.”

But, let’s face it, celebrities have been known to be out of touch! I write about the art they make for a living, but I can’t take everything they say as gospel. So, after kicking myself for not having seen To Leslie already myself, I heeded Minnie Driver using my favorite turn of phrase (“run, don’t walk”) and fired up the film.

I’ll be damned, the celebrities were right. To Leslie, and especially Riseborough, is a triumph of indie cinema.

To Leslie opens with a montage of portraits of a woman whose life has been anything but easy. We see photos of Leslie (Riseborough) as she grew up, went to her high school prom, got pregnant early, and eventually ended up a struggling single mother after escaping an abusive relationship. The sequence ends with local news footage of Leslie after she wins $190,000 in the lottery. When the reporter asks what she’ll do with the money, a frenzied Leslie responds, “Maybe buy a house, buy something nice for my boy, just have a better life!” A muffled call from a bystander rings out, and Leslie shouts to the crowd that drinks are on her.

Bluewater Lane Productions

Six years later, Leslie has pissed all of the money away and is getting kicked out of the motel she lives in, for failing to pay her rent on time. Faced with being unhoused, Leslie goes where she knows she might be able to pick someone up: the bar. It doesn’t hurt that they might pay for her tab, either, and she knows how to try to make herself look appealing when a group of handsome strangers walk through the door. Soon enough, Leslie is back out on the street, and she uses the last of her cash to phone her son, James (Owen Teague).

Getting in touch with her only child is Leslie’s last resort. Despite her disease, she knows that she doesn’t want to involve her child in her own mess. She’s good for a day or two in James’ apartment, convincing him that she’s not drinking like she used to. But before long, the malevolent call of addiction clouds her better judgment, and Leslie starts rummaging for drinking money in pants pockets and wallets.

Riseborough floats through these early scenes with almost eerie expertise. The fog of a perma-hungover addict, genuinely trying to hide her disease from the one person she loves most in the world, hangs on her face like a curse she can’t shake. Eventually, it gets so heavy that it weighs her back down into the dark, and Riseborough’s eyes come alive again when Leslie has her first taste of alcohol in a couple of days.

James, who’s only 19, can no longer tolerate seeing his mother go in and out of this stupor. He takes on the painful responsibility of having the police escort her to the bus station, where he’s arranged for family friends Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root) to take her in once she reaches their hometown. Leslie quickly squanders that as well, and ends up sleeping outside another motel. In the morning, she’s chased off the property by Sweeney (Marc Maron) and Royal (Andre Royo), the motel’s operators. But with nowhere else to go, Leslie lurks around the motel grounds until Sweeney takes pity on her, offering her a housekeeping job.

Maron has always been adept at playing disarmingly amiable grumps, and his performance here leans toward the softer side of the spectrum his roles have crafted. His work opposite Riseborough is electric and believably sweet, making the scenes between Leslie and Sweeney welcome, tender touches against the film’s harder edges.

But, like every white woman in Hollywood has said over the last week, it’s Riseborough who runs away with the film, particularly in scenes where she’s left to her own devices. She transforms a trope that we’ve seen in film countless times before—the self-destructive single mother—into its own singular character study, rising to the occasion every time the camera focuses on her.

Bluewater Lane Productions

In one particular sequence, just before Leslie hits rock bottom, Riseborough all but clinches her Oscar nomination. Leslie sits in the bar after last call, listening to Willie Nelson’s “Are You Sure” playing over the jukebox. Riseborough never utters a single word—only takes an occasional puff on her cigarette—but the emotion that runs across Leslie’s pained face says everything and more. If there were any justice, and the Oscars ceremony didn’t only include acting clips with nominees speaking, this would be Riseborough’s contender reel.

The film itself isn’t quite as strong as Riseborough’s performance, just teetering on the edge of melodrama throughout. But at its few weakest points, To Leslie is propped up by the strengths of its strong cast and Ryan Binaco’s dextrous script, which balances humor and tough-love despondency. Janney only appears in a handful of scenes opposite Riseborough, eliciting a small chuckle every time we see her hardened, sunburned-while-wearing-sunglasses visage. But the work she does, particularly in the final act, proves that the film understands that even its tertiary characters are capable of providing an effective punch of real, potent emotion.

“The result is an arresting film; it’s no wonder that so many stars seem to be genuinely captivated by it.”

To Leslie doesn’t take any shortcuts, either. This is a full 120-minute affair. And that’s a good thing! We watch Leslie try to pick up the pieces of her broken life, stumbling along the way. We’re graced with enough time to understand the way Leslie’s disease affects her—as addiction affects no two people the same way—and root for her despite constant mistakes. Unlike other recent Oscar pushes, the real, human pain is not brushed aside for a tidy ending. Leslie doesn’t end up fresh as a daisy, never desiring another drop of alcohol again. Nobody saves her. But we see the real and courageous work that she does to point herself toward some semblance of recovery.

The result is an arresting film; it’s no wonder that so many stars seem to be genuinely captivated by it. A movie like this can wear its runtime like a weight chained to its ankle, but To Leslie ebbs and flows with distinctly natural pacing. Its final scene is brimming with authenticity, with the ensemble cast all performing at the top of their game. But it’s always Riseborough’s enchanting eyes that tether the camera to her, proving that she has what it takes to compete among this year’s buzziest contenders. If she does score an Oscar nomination—we’ll find out on Jan. 24—it’ll be more than earned.

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