It's a bummer that 'From Leslie' is likely to be overshadowed by its 2023 Oscar campaign. The barely distributed and modestly-budgeted film was subject to what has been described as an aggressive social media push that assembled several A-list stars (including Edward Norton, Cate Blanchett, Jane Fonda, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Anniston, Courteney Cox, Minnie Driver, Gwyneth Paltrow and Amy Adams, and others) who all touted Andrea Riseborough's work in Michael Morris' film. Is that much worse than inundating people with a relentless multimillion-dollar campaign? Is it more obnoxious than Netflix blasting 'All Quiet on the Western Front' across my Twitter feed and Disney spending a fortune on outdoor advertising for 'Wakanda Forever'? I don't think so.
A skilfully deployed opening credit sequence tells you everything you need to know. A montage of photos spanning decades introduces us to Leslie (Riseborough, 'The Grudge', 'The Death of Stalin'), a Texan single mother and, as we are informed by local TV news footage, one-time lottery winner. When asked what she will do with the money her plans are non-committal. "I don't know, maybe buy a house, get something nice for my boy... just have a better life!" she says, before proclaiming that the drinks on her. Tragically, her unexpected windfall of cash gives Leslie the financial resources to disappear down a six-year bender of alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, and mistreatment.
After being kicked out her home at a seedy hotel and emerging, bruised and battered, from a barroom pickup (soundtracked to Freddie King's 'Going Down', most famously used in 'Eastbound & Down'), Leslie struggles to reconnect with her now adult son James (an impressive Owen Teague, 'It'). He tries to save his mother from her self-destructive impulses, but is forced to ask for help from her unsympathetic former friends Nancy (Allison Janney, 'Bombshell', 'I, Tonya', TV's 'Bad Education') and Dutch (Stephen Root, 'Get Out', 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'). Aside from James, Leslie can't seem to gain sympathy from anyone in town. She seems to be as universally scorned as Monica Bellucci's pariah in Giuseppe Tornatore's 'Malèna', having burned through her neighbour's goodwill as fast she did her lotto money. Fortunately, hope comes in the form of Sweeney (Marc Maron, 'Joker'), who offers Leslie a job cleaning the rooms at his motel.
'To Leslie' leaves you feeling raw and tender, thanks mainly to the knockout performances from the core cast, especially Riseborough, all big eyes, thin frame, chapped lips, and bruised skin.
The strength of the film lies in the interplay between Leslie and whoever she is testing the patience of, like her tentative relationship with James and the dynamic with Sweeney, who bonds with Leslie over their shared histories with addiction. The carefully calibrated screenplay by Ryan Binaco chronicles the ups and downs of a woman desperate to unite the broken shreds of despair in her life into something resembling the stability she longs for.
Although the narrative lapses into predictability at times, the direction and writing conspire to reveal, with a refreshing frankness, both sides of the human condition. Leslie, while battered and worn down by life, is not totally doomed and pathetic. Not unlike Bill and Turner Ross' 'Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets', the film is at times a sad, depressing study in human wreckage, yet its no-frills, oily-skinned honesty is admirable. 'To Leslie' leaves you feeling raw and tender, thanks mainly to the knockout performances from the core cast, especially Riseborough, all big eyes, thin frame, chapped lips, and bruised skin. No stranger to giving eye-catching, well-executed performances in, amongst other things, Brandon Cronenberg's 'Possessor' and Panos Cosmatos' 'Mandy', Riseborough is not a nobody actor without a full body of work, which is why the furore over her Oscar campaign is so baffling. Hopefully, at the very least, her Oscar nomination ensures that we will see more centre-stage performances from her.
Controversy aside, 'To Leslie' manages an extremely credible job of character development, explaining not only Leslie's dilemma but the reasons she has sunk to the depths of her own reckless desolation. The nuanced characters and situations are full of drama, yet never descend into melodrama. It is a film that may leave you exhausted, but also filled with optimism.