‘To Leslie’ poster | Credit: Momentum Pictures

When the Oscar roll was called up yonder, in the Best Actress category, many shared a common response: “yes, we know most of these candidates, having been inundated with Oscar buzz for weeks, but who is this Andrea Riseborough person, and who has heard of/watched the film To Leslie?” On that very subject, controversy was abuzz around the allegation the actress’ champions — including high-powered stars — had lobbied the Academy to get her onto the coveted list, while bypassing the usual machinery of expensive advertising and promotion campaigns (which includes festival tribute stops such as we see annually through the Santa Barbara International Film Festival).

All of that peripheral falderal and catty banter aside, the main takeaway is that through this quirk of the system many are being led to watch an indie sleeper of a film well worth watching — mostly thanks to British actress Riseborough’s stunning performance in the lead, anti-heroine role. Her balance of control and abandon is on an order of artfulness rarely seen on-screen, the stuff Best Actress Oscars are made of.

In writer-director Michael Morris’s moving and cathartic film, based loosely on a true story, Riseborough plays an alcoholic mother in West Texas, whose hefty lottery win in the intro quickly yields to years later, when her life has come undone, along with her relationship with her long-suffering son. In short, Riseborough’s performance is the finest portrayal of the soggy fatalism and sinking fate of an alcoholic since Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, except that (semi-spoiler alert) she doesn’t succumb completely and “leave” town in that mortal last call sense.

The addict’s journey as presented here as a kind of multi-layered ghost story: she is haunted by the raggedy ghosts of her past, in and out of her hometown, where she has baggage of lost promises and is ostracized by a community which has watched her rise and fall, and sequential falls. Yet more deeply haunting is the distance between her and her son, who she abandoned and yearns to reconnect with.

One agent of change, and a pivotal scene in the film, comes via saint Willie. Nelson. His voice seeps into her late-night barroom perch, posing the musical question “ “Are you sure this is where you want to be?” from his jukeboxed song “Are You Sure?” Another route to recovery comes through her gruff-yet-compassionate employer and would-be love interest from the film’s central motel/diner world (actor/podcaster Marc Maron, also one of the first to ignite the mission of promoting Riseborough’s Oscar prospects).

Hints of happy ending machinery rumble in the film’s third act, although no plot spoiler will be dropped here. Suffice to say, the film is both about plunging into depths of addiction and desperation and entertaining avenues of redemption. Riseborough’s fluid navigation of those two poles draws us in and lingers in the memory. 

To Leslie is currently available to rent and purchase on a range of platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, YouTube and Google Play.


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