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To Leslie review: addiction, poverty and a shot at redemption

A former lottery winner and addict tries to heal the scars of her past in the captivating To Leslie.

The standout thing about To Leslie – apart from the unfortunate Oscars campaign controversy surrounding all talk of the film – is its commitment to realism. Handheld cameras depict grimy, neon-soaked bars where dreams go to die, and even grimier actors who fumble their words and don’t preen for the audience.

In its quest to present the hellish cycles of addiction and poverty in a no-nonsense manner, To Leslie is a success.

Where it fumbles slightly is in its tendency to fall into stereotypical redemption arc beats. Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), the titular character, is a woman two steps away from rock bottom. Years ago she became the talk of her small West Texas town by winning the lottery – to the tune of $190,000. It sounds like a lot to most people, but in just six years Leslie has managed to lose it all to the drink and (presumably) other hedonistic pleasures.

When the opening Dolly Parton-accompanied montage of family Polaroids and Leslie’s lottery win on the local news stops playing, we are dropped abruptly into her present day. She is depressed, broke, and alone – and worse yet, the cheap motel she lives in is kicking her out for not paying rent.

So what happened to Leslie? Well, $190,000 really isn’t a lot (have you seen housing prices lately?). It’s certainly not a magical, life-saving amount in today’s capitalist society; not without the financial literacy to invest, save, and continue working. Leslie is working class and un-educated. It’s implied she never worked throughout those six years, and never did anything else with the money but spend it. How could she not, when every aspect of American culture encourages big spending?

But of course, the narrative everyone in town spins is that she is irresponsible and selfish.

Now alone and penniless, carrying only a faded pink suitcase, Leslie is perpetually turned away from any help she might receive. Her son resents her and won’t look after her unless she stops drinking (and we know she won’t; our suspicions confirmed when he pulls back her mattress to find empty bottles of vodka). Her former friends, Dutch and Nancy – a wonderfully engaging pair from stand-out character actors Stephen Root and Allison Janney – are likewise judgemental of her addiction and throw her out without a care.

Leslie and her pink suitcase. Image: Kismet films

Leslie is well on her way to becoming a rough-sleeper, until she meets Sweeney (Marc Maron). Sweeney manages a motel with his friend Royal (Andre Royo), and after a chance encounter he decides to extend some kindness in Leslie’s direction.

This is where things really took a turn for me – not just narrative wise, but in terms of keeping me engaged. Maron damn near stole the show, even though this film is essentially Andrea Riseborough’s star vehicle. And look, she is great, but Maron brings an understated empathy and rough-around-the-edges warmth that lifts this film from being predictable and one-notey to a film worthy of your attention.

The acting is really what drives this film. Larkin Seiple’s camerawork rightfully lets the actors do their thing, their well-worn characters filling each frame with booze-soaked sadness, trembling fear, and eventually, hope.

Interestingly, I found Leslie’s redemption to be rather spiritual. A church organs play as she makes her pilgrimage towards betterment, and a Hare Krishna record humorously accompanies her attempt at quitting ‘cold turkey’. She thanks God regularly, and even though it’s just a part of her Southern vernacular it feels deliberate.

Some of these choices felt a little too much like Southern US poverty ‘theatre’, where actors put on ‘poor person cosplay’ and cry their heart out for a chance at an award. But this is merely a personal feeling – the To Leslie screenplay was based on the writer’s mother, and so for all we know, most of the details are genuine.

To Leslie is in cinemas from 9 March 2023.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports