Ryan Binaco’s script for To Leslie doesn’t have a lot of plot: woman wins lottery, pisses the money and years away on booze, then finds her way to recovery. But that doesn’t matter, because this is essentially a character study – an examination of the impact of sudden wealth and (local) fame on a person ill-equipped to deal with it.
Andrea Riseborough is magnificent in the title role. Her best actress Oscar nomination might have come as a surprise, but it makes sense. She’s utterly compelling, embodying that recognisable mix of grit and vulnerability we’ve all seen in addicts. Under Michael Morris’s direction, we’re shown what lurks beneath the glamorous exterior of the world’s richest country – the shameful underbelly of the rural blue-collar folk, with their dilapidated, no-hope towns and miserable motel lives. When, having exhausted all other avenues, Leslie has to come ‘home’, it’s to a community that’s furious with her, because she’s exposed the lie they all live by. A winning ticket isn’t enough if you’ve already lost in the lottery of life. And Nancy (Alison Janney) isn’t going to let her off the hook.
It’s not a great film: there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, no fresh insights or profound revelations. What’s more, there’s something a little uncomfortable about the spectacle of Leslie’s decline; it feels a bit like poverty tourism. “You wouldn’t want people watching you,” her son, James (Owen Teague), tells her, when she suggests going to the zoo. “They do,” she says. And we are – but there is much to admire too. I like the way that Leslie’s problems are solved within her own community, not by a middle-class outsider, or a big organisation. Instead, it’s down to her to make the change, to begin to see the possibility of a future where she can make peace with her failings. In this, she is aided by the kindly Sweeney (Marc Maron), who offers her a job cleaning up in his motel, and the quiet, non-judgemental friendship she so badly needs.
Riseborough veers between desperation and fury, hurt and vitriol, and the depiction is always nuanced and believable. Leslie’s burn-it-all-down attitude is heartbreaking to watch (there’s a clear exposé here of why a simple ‘roof over their head’ approach isn’t enough to solve the homelessness problem), and her redemption, when it comes, feels very well-earned – even if it is too heavily signposted early on.
In the end, To Leslie is a rather ordinary cautionary tale, elevated by an extraordinary performance. And that’s all I’ve got time to say, because I need to pop to the shops for a ticket for tonight’s lottery…