When the nominees for this year’s acting Oscars were announced, there was surprise regarding the best actress nomination for Andrea Riseborough, star of a little-seen indie, “To Leslie,” which only made a few hundred thousand at the box office. But having finally watched it, I can see why she got the nod.
Riseborough plays the title character, a woman who won $190,000 in the lottery, but was careless with the money, most of which went to buying booze. Six years later, she’s broke, alcoholic, and alone. She tries re-connecting with her 19-year-old son, James (Owen Teague), who lets her stay with him in his apartment as long as she doesn’t drink — which isn’t very long.
After he throws her out, Leslie goes back to her hometown, where no one is happy to see her. She had treated people terribly and owes most of them money, so no one’s going to loan her another dime — especially her ex-friends Nancy and Dutch, played by Allison Janney and Stephen Root. She tries to charm some men at a local bar, hoping to get something out of them, but they all turn away.
The only one with a soft spot is Sweeney (Marc Maron), who runs a motel with his partner, Royal (Andre Royo, so memorable as Bubbles on “The Wire”). Sweeney gives Leslie a job cleaning the rooms and lets her stay in one of them. It’s his way of saying he sees the desperation in this troubled woman. While other movie characters would exploit Leslie, Sweeney is kind to her, offering a bit of dignity as their friendship grows. That doesn’t mean Leslie stops drinking. She uses the minimum wage from her job to head to the nearest saloon and drink herself into a stupor — until she doesn’t.
Throughout “To Leslie,” Riseborough — who I first noticed as Billie Jean King’s girlfriend, Marilyn, in “Battle Of The Sexes” — gives a stunning performance. Where most actors overplay drunkenness, Riseborough underplays it, understanding that drunks don’t want to be perceived as drunk. There are several scenes in which we watch her just take in the world around her with a deep emptiness in eyes.
As for Maron, he plays Sweeney with a west Texas accent and much of the same world-weariness he displayed as the pawn shop owner, Mel, in “Sword Of Trust” (which I reviewed here), the last movie made by Maron’s late girlfriend, Lynn Shelton. The only difference is that Mel was a cynic while Sweeney is more trusting, with a desire to help the clearly broken Leslie.
There are elements of “To Leslie” that reminded me of “Tender Mercies,” the 1983 Horton Foote/Bruce Beresford movie that starred Robert Duvall as Mac Sledge, a former country music star who drank himself to the bottom of the barrel and tried to start a new life with a motel owner played by Tess Harper. Duvall deservedly won an Oscar for playing Mac with a laid-back sorrow, a man who knows he’s blown it but recognizes a last chance at redeeming himself.
Riseborough does the same in “To Leslie,” and though she didn’t take home a golden statuette (it went to Michelle Yeoh for “Everything Everywhere All At Once”), she certainly proved why she deserved to be nominated. Director Michael Morris, working from a script by Ryan Binaco, gives his star plenty of time to create a similarly sad character in need of redemption.
I give “To Leslie” an 8.5 out of 10. Now streaming on Netflix.