To Leslie: The Difficulty of Starting Over

“To Leslie” is about the hard and difficult struggles of one messy human being. Leslie (Andrea Riseborough) once felt like she was on top of the world, but she hit one bottom after another due to her serious personal problems. This movie from debut director Michael Morris dryly but sensitively depicts Leslie’s desperate reach for any possibility of a new beginning, and we come to have understanding and empathy for her while caring about her problematic life more than expected.

When she won a local lottery and received no less than $190,000, Leslie “Lee” Rowlands was certainly excited, believing everything would go well for her and her young son, but things went downhill over the next several years. She thoughtlessly squandered most of her money on alcohol and drugs, and now she lives a barren and destitute life. After being kicked out of a residential motel, Leslie sees her son (Owen Teague). Although he still feels hurt about being abandoned by his mother, James lets his mother stay at his place because he still cares. Leslie certainly appreciates that, but that does not stop her from returning to her usual alcoholic mode. James naturally becomes quite angry when he learns that his mother broke her promise again. Ultimately, he sends her back to their hometown in West Texas, where she will stay at the house of his paternal grandparents, Dutch (Stephen Root) and Nancy (Allison Janney).

Because many people still remember well how she fell into bankruptcy and addiction, Leslie does not want to return to her hometown, but she has no other option. In addition, she is not welcomed that much by Dutch and Nancy either. Although Dutch and Nancy do not speak that much about what occurred between them and Leslie, we can clearly sense the old anger and resentment between them and Leslie, and that makes Leslie quite uncomfortable at times. Naturally, she inevitably finds herself holding a bottle at a nearby bar, which leads to her being kicked out of Nancy and Dutch’s house. Quite devastated again, Leslie desperately looks for any place she may sleep, and that is how she ends up outside a nearby motel run by Sweeney (Marc Maron) and Royal (Andre Royo). Although he tells her to leave when he finds her the next morning, Sweeney gives a little offer to her when she comes to the motel later. In exchange for a rather small wage and boarding, she will work as a cleaner for him and Royal. She cannot refuse his offer because, well, she needs a place to stay.

Leslie often frustrates both Sweeney and Royal due to her current addiction problem. While frequently late for her work, she keeps drinking as before, and there is a painful moment when she goes inside her former residence without permission one night. She cannot help but miss that good time when everything seemed stable. Nevertheless, Sweeney does not give her up easily given her personal experience with addiction. Even though Leslie lets him down more than once, he still responds to her with kindness and patience. Thanks to him, Leslie soon realizes that she has to pull herself up this time. First, she becomes a little more diligent than before during her work time, and she also tries to get sober, though that turns out to be quite difficult, to say the least.

Of course, there subsequently comes the point where our heroine becomes drawn to her old bad habit again, but the screenplay by Ryan Bianco keeps focusing on character development even at that point. As she comes to appreciate Sweeney’s humane generosity, Leslie opens herself more to him, but she is also reminded of how she has let down many people in her problematic life, including her son. Yes, she really should stop drinking, but it is obvious that she also must take care of many other problems, including herself, first, just like any other addict struggling to take the first step toward sobriety.

I think the movie steps back around the ending for a bit of optimism, but Andrea Riseborough, who deservedly received a surprise Best Actress Oscar nomination amid controversies surrounding campaigns during the last Oscar season, is utterly uncompromising in her raw performance. While not overlooking her character’s many human flaws at all, Riseborough does a fabulous job of conveying her character’s emotional struggles; she is especially fantastic during a certain brief moment when Leslie makes a small but important decision for herself. Although she does not say anything, Riseborough lets us sense some change in her character’s conflicted mind, which is why the ending is effective enough to touch us.

Around Riseborough, several main cast members ably support her, each having a moment to shine. While imbuing his character with a gentle sense of human compassion, Marc Maron has excellent low-key chemistry with Riseborough during their key scenes in the film. Allison Janney is dependent as usual in her acerbic supporting role. Stephen Root, Owen Teague, and Andre Royo are also solid in their respective parts, and Royo, who has always drawn my attention since I saw him in the HBO TV series “The Wire,” demonstrates again that he is one of the most reliable character actors at present.

“To Leslie” is a quiet but powerful character drama driven by one of the best performances in Riseborough’s stellar career. Since she drew my attention in James Marsh’s “Shadow Dancer” (2012), she has seldom disappointed us during the last ten years. I hope that her recent Oscar nomination from “To Leslie” will boost her even further.