People make mistakes, we’re just programmed that way. Whether its within our control or not, nobody is perfect and despite whatever harm someone may have caused (within reason), as humans we deserve a chance at redemption. A second chance to prove yourself to be good and do the same by others who may be on the receiving end of those terrible choices that warrant the change to occur. Redemption isn’t a new catalyst for a character to grow within a story, however the concept is deeply human, its relatable and something that we all inherently understand on a level that is easy to root for.
When we first meet the titular character in To Leslie, Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), she is beyond redemption. Why root for someone who has willingly destroyed her life for a controlled substance disease? Leslie has dug herself a sizable hole that she struggles to even see the top of. All of Leslie’s actions have been consequently dealt with at nauseum and those around her will waste no time and energy reminding Leslie how much she screwed her life up and the good things that life can bring.
After a stroke of luck at a local lottery, Leslie came into some money, $190,000 dollars’ worth, where she vowed to put a down payment on a house for her and her son James (Owen Teague), open a diner and buy James a guitar. Scenes flash like home videos playing of the winning moment and then director Michael Morris fast forwards 6 years and Leslie has spent every last dime on liquor – leaving her son James and having run out of lifelines in her hometown. After the time jump, Michael Morris’s film picks up on Leslie who has been forcefully removed from her motel living arrangement, behind on her rent and even James, after a brief reconnection, kicks his mother out of his apartment after Leslie’s disease cannot be controlled or stopped.
It’s in these early moments that the idea of hope and redemption begin to sprout up. But still the saying fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me plays a major part in Leslie’s forgiveness. Having nowhere left to turn after old friends Dutch (Stephen Root) and Nance (Allison Janney) slack Leslie a short leash, that the possibility of redemption gets easier to stomach for Leslie. She undoubtably deserves it but screenwriter Ryan Binaco has no problem making the road traveled full of twists and turns, steps forward and back.
As Michael Morris’s film gets its legs underneath it, the gaze toward Leslie opening up and facing her reality and mistakes gets softer around the edges while the frustration is turned toward those who continue to criticize something that happened in the past. Unforgivable as the actions may be, it’s the personal mockery and vendetta that others stigmatize Leslie with that makes it hard to ignore that she isn’t the “piece of shit” everyone else makes her out to be. Regardless, Leslie is still human, and Ryan Binaco humanizes a broken person – there is more Leslie has to offer this world than being an alcoholic.
There comes a point when the lightbulb goes off for Leslie – she has just accepted a job at a motel by Sweeny (Marc Maron) and owner Royal (Andre Royo) and swindled her way into an advance by the kindhearted Sweeny. Leslie then proceeds to end up at a bar where the last call is shouted out for the remaining ‘degenerates’ to settle up their tab and move on. The symbolism of Willie Nelson’s “Are You Sure” that plays while Leslie contemplates her life defines Leslie as a character in dealing with her disease.
Music supervisor Buck Damon puts the right music that emotes what Leslie is feeling front and center. Each country genre selection adds depth right when the moment calls for it. To a film that inspires hope, healing and a second chance to right some wrongs, the selection of music is crucial. Where words fail, the music Damon uses speaks louder, complimenting the score by Linda Perry.
Anyone who knows the effects of a controlled substance knows the harm it can cause. The constant wish for change in that person abusing the substances is all that can be talked about. Those around Leslie, call her a horrible person but they don’t stop her – they never did. More are at fault in Binaco’s screenplay than the abuser. There are those that possibly enabled and turned a blind eye to the cries for help. The only way a person with this type of disease will get help is admitting they have a problem. Planting an idea in someone’s head doesn’t work if they can’t see the benefit in changing their lifestyle. Both Morris and Binaco use that sentiment to the films advantage to watch Leslie undergo healing.
Every frame of Larkin Seiple’s photography captures an honest look into the harsh reality of an alcoholic. There is beauty behind the chaos of a frantic search for the next score. Putting the camera up close on Riseborough gets the full spectrum of emotions one could imagine when focusing in on a character study of this magnatitude.
To Leslie’s center of gravity in which the talented ensemble is drawn toward is Andrea Riseborough’s remarkable and inspiring performance. Riseborough commands our attention as she sweeps us up in her journey, portraying one of the most realistic depictions of alcoholism and its destructive nature. She is absolutely magnetic; you’re drawn to her, and you can’t help but wish the best for Leslie in changing her life and accepting the faults for her addiction. In one scene Riseborough has the ability to make you laugh and the next minute and cry, she gives a career defining performance that is the best of 2022. For a majority of the film, Riseborough is raw, broken, incomplete, honest, beautiful and full of spirit. Even with the talent of Marc Maron and Allison Janney next to her, acting in the same scene, your eyes cannot be taken off Riseborough.
To Leslie is a triumph of a character study. Michael Morris creates hope where there is none and gives promise to humanities darkest corners. For 119 minutes, To Leslie is a healing experiential journey we all can understand, some more than others but universal, nonetheless. All performances are exceptional with natural chemistry between Maron and Riseborough. There’s power in believing in someone but there is more in believing in yourself.
Screenplay By: Ryan Binaco
Directed By: Michael Morris
Music By: Linda Perry
Cinematography: Larkin Seiple
Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Allison Janney, Marc Maron, Andre Royo, Owen Teague, Stephen Root
Release Date: October 7, 2022
Running Time: 1 Hour 59 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%