‘To Leslie’: film review | SXSW 2022
In the brief and lively prologue of To Leslie, the main character’s celebratory whoops are understandable. She won the lottery to the tune of $190,000 – a jackpot enough to make a difference for a working-class single mother in a small West Texas town. And yet there is something tense and desperate about her excitement in front of the TV cameras, a signal that she is not about to head herself and her teenage son to Easy Street. And so on: As the main action of the finely observed drama begins, six years later, Leslie is down. Drinking heavily and almost estranged from her son, she is kicked out of the motel where she lives. She is not going quietly.
Leslie is portrayed to captivating perfection by Andrea Riseborough, who appears in almost every scene and delivers an extraordinary performance in her sparks of hope against hope and her budding self-awareness amid despair, concealment and confusion. self-delusion. . To Leslie is a film about reaching rock bottom but also a story steeped in grace – and even, in its understated, lived-in aesthetic, tinged with a bit of a fairy tale, Prince Charming arrives as a low-key and affecting Marc Maron.
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Working from a script that Ryan Binaco (3022) wrote as a no-holds-barred tribute to his mother, director Michael Morris, who brings extensive experience directing and producing television series to his feature debut (his credits include You better call Saul, Billions, Shameless, Card castle and Line), does not hit a wrong note. The observational drama is set in an unspecified pre-digital era, brought to life by powerful performances as well as superb design work by Emma Rose Mead and Nancea Ceo. A moving character study captured in intimate 35mm by DP Larkin Seiple and sensitively edited by Chris McCaleb, To Leslie recalls the grit of 1970s American independent cinema at its most indelible.
The sequence of still images from the opening credits relays the basics of Leslie’s life – high school exuberance, young motherhood, abusive relationship. Now, the baby-pink suitcase that contains all her worldly possessions symbolizes her loneliness but also serves as a kind of talisman, marking a link, however tenuous, with her past.
Among its contents is a tattered sheet of paper containing the handwritten contact details of James (Owen Teague), his 19-year-old son, who works in construction in an unnamed large town. He meets her there at the end of his bus ride, practically crouching in the shadows before approaching her. Suspicion wounded in every look, Teague communicates his character’s concern and love without a word. James worries for his mother but also for himself, having suffered the fallout from Leslie’s selfish whims and alcoholism at a young age.
James lays down a few ground rules – key among them: no drinking – which Leslie quickly breaks, rummaging for cash in the dresser of her roommate, Darren (Catfish Jean, delivering a brief but memorable trick). Despite our contemporary understanding of addiction as a disease, To Leslie doesn’t slow down how disruptive and destructive addicts can be, how impossible it is to be there. Encouraged by Darren and with the help of the police – and stirring up feelings in the public that might be as conflicted as his own – James sends his mother back to his hometown in Texas. It’s the place she dreads the most in the world; within her narrow confines, her past actions and their repercussions will be hard to escape, and she’s at a point where, if she had a list of priorities, taking responsibility for her actions wouldn’t be one of them.
Back home, she is haunted and haunting. There’s nothing but bad blood between her and the former close friends who took her in at the behest of James, Dutch (Stephen Root) and Nancy (a fierce Allison Janney). Without falling into backstory overload, the film gradually and effectively unveils the reasons for the couple’s feelings and their depth. Dutch is a man of few words, but those he summons shortly after Leslie arrives make it very clear: “There’s no one taking your shit a second time.” Nancy, more hardened, takes a seemingly perverse pleasure in taunting Leslie, as does her friend Pete (James Landry Hébert, of 1883). Nancy bites into some savory rebukes, among them a description of Leslie as “riding hard and hanging up wet.” Janney’s knockout portrayal makes the vindictive anger fully felt – and ultimately, no less, the pain behind it.
Among the film’s most impactful scenes are a few doozies set at the local watering hole, where Leslie gravitates to quench her thirst and escape the judgment of her reluctant hosts. Binaco, Morris and Riseborough are accustomed to the bar as a place of solace and performance, a cocoon of darkness against ill-hidden pain. Fueled by alcohol and believing her seductive charms are still very much alive, Leslie works hard and Riseborough is fearless in the unpleasant desperation that emerges. Leslie’s attempt to seduce an extremely polite cowboy (Scott Subiono) doesn’t end as she hopes, but when, much later in the film, she presents the come-on of a young stallion (Matt Lauria), she is no longer playing a game; it is she who sees through someone else.
She reaches this point of understanding through Sweeney (Maron), a stranger who comes into her life not in the protective darkness of a bar but in the purifying glow of morning, on the grounds of the motel he runs in the outskirts of town, near the train tracks. Despite the stark evidence, Leslie somehow expected the universe to meet her halfway. Call it storytelling artifice, serendipity, blind luck, or ineffable mercy, but in Sweeney, it does that and more.
When they first meet, after discovering Leslie and her pink suitcase on the motel property, he chases her away. The second time he confronts her, he impulsively offers her a job and accommodation. Perhaps he sees the scruffy stranger differently after hearing the owner of the Motel Royal (a terrific Andre Royo, from Empire), a native of the city like Leslie, mentions his “true sad story”. Whatever his reasons at the time, it’s clear that reaching out to Leslie imbues Sweeney’s days with a sense of purpose that he’s long lacked. Something in him lights up, clear and true.
As the two actors slowly weave a deep bond between their characters, the script provides a backstory for Sweeney as well as Leslie, but more like a shadow than a narrative crutch. In a Southern change of pace from her often sardonic on-screen roles, Maron is an innocent yet wise guardian angel, watching Leslie fidget, lie and thrash, and stay close while she suffers withdrawal. brutal alcohol. A dinner scene that finds them side-by-side at tables on the TV set is miraculous in its quiet emotion, capped off with a burst of diegetic music that delights and surprises the characters as well as the audience.
In another example of in-frame music, Willie Nelson’s song “Are You Sure” plays on a bar’s last call, and it’s so much about the money for Leslie’s messy circumstances that she has to laugh. – but Morris and Riseborough also let us see how the lyrics’ message of loneliness seeps through. The soundtrack makes good use of tracks by George Jones and Waylon Jennings, and Linda Perry contributes a new tune, sung over the closing credits by Patty Griffin, that encapsulates the uncommon benevolence Leslie feels.
The Dolly Parton track that opens the film hints at some sort of theme at this year’s SXSW; Participation in the narrative feature film competition seriously red focuses on Parton’s ethos and aesthetic, and Parton herself is a key figure in the title Documentary Spotlight Always work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.. This theme could be a celebration of female common sense, resilience and humor – qualities that the main character of To Leslie embodies, against all odds and against all odds. Riseborough digs deep and takes no shortcuts to chart a hard-earned path to redemption, the rage that holds Leslie back transforms into the energy that fuels her survival.
Royal, an acid sufferer with strange habits and moving ideas, at one point berates Leslie that “some people can’t see a good thing when it falls on their plate.” Beginning at the darker end of the emotional spectrum and progressing to a brighter place, Morris’ drama reveals someone learning to see, and Riseborough’s portrayal is unwinding, alive with scintillating rough edges.
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