Michael Morris’ “To Leslie” is a redemptive drama about a poor Southern white lady played by Andrea Riseborough, who wins $190,000 in the state lottery and only learns the value of sharing after she’s drank all her cash away. But for a while there, the film is almost as slippery and elusive as the actress who plays its title role.
Is it going to be — as the first stop along its episodic first half would suggest — a gruesome scream-fest between a bottom-of-the-bottle alcoholic and the semi-adult son (Owen Teague) who’s trying to give her a second chance? Is it going to be the trashy throwdown that’s teased by Leslie’s “The Real Housewives of Nowhere, Texas”-style reunion with her old best friend Nancy (Allison Janney in regal biker queen mode) and her partner Dutch (Stephen Root, sporting a camo headband and a flowing wig)? Is it going to be the kind of story that offers a ray of light at the end of the tunnel, or does Leslie just wash up on the streets of her hometown so that she can die on the same patch of dirt where she was born?
But just when it seems like Ryan Binaco’s script — a love letter to his own mother — might be as mixed up as its heroine, the answer to all of the questions it’s provoked arrives in one fell swoop when Leslie crosses paths with Sweeney, the manager of a derelict motel near her old stomping grounds. The effect has little to do with the character and almost everything to do with the fact that he’s played by Marc Maron with a little Southern lilt.
The comic and podcaster supreme leverages his personal experience with loss and addiction (and the countless hours he’s spent talking about both) into the best performance of his career, rendering Sweeney with the kind of softly calloused desperation that almost died off with Falk or Cassavetes, but his impact on the overall trajectory of this movie is felt long before he becomes a major part of it. The simple fact of Maron’s screen presence — the sheer empathy disguised by his singularly dispassionate wheeze — is so undeniable that you can tell right away that at least one person will see Leslie for more than her splotchy face and self-sabotage. Riseborough might show more range in a single take than Maron has been able to muster across his entire career, but Morris’ decision to pit the most chameleonic actress of her generation against a guy who’s spent his entire life figuring out how to be himself eventually creates a friction strong enough to focus this shaggy movie into something more than the sum of its misshapen parts.
The first hour of “To Leslie,” however, is just the Andrea Riseborough show, and her gifts as a shapeshifter are the only thing that keep it from fraying apart. Riseborough doesn’t know how to play archetypes — she couldn’t serve you standard-issue train-wreck if she tried — and so those long opening scenes of Leslie oozing from bars to gutters and back again are uncommonly grim no matter how familiar her character’s downward spiral might seem. Leslie is what Nancy’s mama might describe as “rode hard and hung up wet,” but her swollen eyelid and glazed expression suggest a deeper kind of detachment.
Rough as it is to watch Leslie lick her overpainted lips at every man in sight and crawl towards perfect strangers like the mangiest cat in the alley, the pallid film over Riseborough’s face suggests that Leslie is consciously leaning into her own sadness. When she hit the jackpot six years earlier she became the closest thing her town had to a golden girl; now she’s just the piece of shit who blew her only hope of making something of her life, abandoned her son along the way, and wants everyone in smelling distance to know it as soon as they see her. In a different movie, Leslie’s first act decision to crash with her son might be a chance for her to turn it all around. In this movie, it’s just an underwritten chance for her to confirm her worst suspicions about herself. Ditto the brief stay with Dutch and Nancy that follows.
But that’s the thing with lottery winners: Some of them forget you have to make your own luck. It isn’t entirely true what they say about Leslie — that she’s what’s wrong with her life, and not anyone else — but even the winning Powerball numbers are just a worthless series of digits unless you buy a ticket and give them a shot. And that idea cuts both ways after Leslie stumbles into a job as a maid at Sweeney’s motel (the maid, really), and these two lonely characters do everything in their power to ruin a rare chance at companionship.
She’s too drunk to show up for work, and he’s too ornery to cut her any slack. Then again, she’s also too vulnerable to go anywhere else, and he’s too desperate to fire her. The push-and-pull between these people (fleshed out by Andre Royo’s endearing performance as the lovable eccentric who owns the place) lends a much-needed charge to Morris’ drifting theatrical debut, and finds real texture in Larkin Seiple’s mottled 35mm cinematography just when it’s threatening to become an affect.
The writing remains a bit thin as Leslie and Sweeney warm to each other during a series of terse heart-to-hearts (and even a doomed quasi-date at a local barn dance, which crystallizes the film’s vivid sense of place), but these lost souls already know everything they need to about each other from practically the minute they meet, and the only suspense comes from what they’re going to do about it — from what they’re willing to offer each other. Maybe Leslie is what’s wrong with her life, but it isn’t just her life, and it never should have been framed that way. “To Leslie” doesn’t always make things easy, but it’s deeply touching to watch the film’s characters learn how to share their mutual good fortune.
“To Leslie” premiered at SXSW 2022. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.