You’re trying to do what I didn’t do.
Despite what she tells herself as she scrounges up enough money for that first beer at the bar before quickly pivoting to flirting for free drinks the rest of the night, Leslie (Andrea Riseborough) hit rock bottom a long time ago. Leaving home merely postponed that self-realization by allowing her to avoid the carnage left in her wake much longer than she should have. If she finds another motel to sleep in without paying rent and another man to facilitate her addiction, the ensuing numbness continues shielding her from that reality. So, when her most recent lodging kicks her to the curb and her latest “date” leaves her with a black eye, the truth hits her like a ton of bricks. Yet even then the delusion proves immovable.
Director Michael Morris and screenwriter Ryan Binaco (who wrote To Leslie as a love letter to his mother) aren’t telling this story to vilify or pity their lead character, though. As the former states in the press notes, their goal was to build an “empathy machine” like only the magic of cinema can. This is slice of life humanity brimming with authenticity and propped up by one of the best performances of the year so we can understand the pain and self-loathing beneath every mean-spirited and vindictive action Leslie takes. Because her descent towards destitution is more complex than those victimized by her fall are quick to describe through justifiably biased judgment. They have zero reason to forgive. Those extenuating circumstances are so Leslie might still forgive herself.
Raised in a poor town by domineering parents, Leslie gravitated towards alcohol and excess like everyone else. She had a son, scraped by, and enjoyed her free time without a care in the world. Then she won the lottery. Despite dreams of buying a house, however, the money ultimately went towards making that penchant for excess her everyday existence. It was unsurprisingly spent as quickly as it was received while her addiction spiraled beyond control. Six years after leaving town without so much as a word find her simultaneously excommunicated and in self-exile. Her parents won’t speak to her. Her friends’ (Allison Janney‘s Nancy and Stephen Root‘s Dutch) compassion well is dry. But the adult son (Owen Teague‘s James) who grew up without her proves an easy mark.
We see it the second he picks her up from the bus stop. He wants his mother back. Leslie smiles and plays along, but we recognize the desperation. It’s a performance for a bed, food, and the opportunity to eventually steal whatever money James and his roommate have lying around so she can get her booze fix. Calling him was just one more lifeline. One more postponement of reality. It’s as much a drug as the drink—to somehow land on her feet (no matter how tenuously) and believe herself invincible. Except she’s still that same woman who left. Still the selfish addict who’d sacrifice everyone around her for that compulsion. It doesn’t matter how many people help her before getting burned, though. Salvation starts with helping herself.
That’s the journey To Leslie presents. It’s the walk of shame back to her hometown only to discover the last door that remained open to her wasn’t lying about giving her one single chance before closing shop. If not for another easy mark—this time one without a history with her to know better when things go off the rails—she might be dead in a week. While Sweeney (Marc Maron) is too sweet for his own good, however, he’s not without experience with or sympathy for Leslie’s plight. Not knowing her allows him to possess a benefit of doubt no one else can muster. And sometimes that second chance is all someone in her position needs. The knowledge that his desire to help might actually be genuine.
Morris and Binaco aren’t reinventing the wheel insofar as how they present Leslie’s year-long struggle to earn an opportunity for redemption amongst a town that rightfully treats her like a joke. They hit all the usual checkpoints from relapse to self-implosion to withdrawal to shame spiral in the usual order of events. What elevates the material here is the fact that they do so with honesty. By never trying to manipulate us into believing Leslie deserves the town’s ire or that she doesn’t, we’re able to just watch a broken woman deal with the consequences of her actions. Because, as Sweeney eventually lays down with a fair if harsh truth bomb, no one is responsible for her fate besides herself. It hurts because she knows that he’s right.
Things will still get worse because she will continue to be her own worst enemy. As long as Leslie can remember her son, though, she still has a path back. Because that love is real. There’s no denying that she abandoned him regardless of whether she believed doing so best served his needs at the time. While that’s no excuse, it does show that she at least thought about his wellbeing when deciding to go. Maybe that’s therefore enough to pull her free from her demons. And maybe having someone like Sweeney (Maron’s earnestness is adorably pure yet never so over-the-top as to turn him into a doormat) is enough to counteract the perpetual hate being spewed by Nancy and Pete (James Landry Hébert) whenever their paths cross.
And with Riseborough at the center, we’re wholly invested in finding out. She gives everything to the role with an inherent sadness and sense of humiliation forever present beneath smiles and scowls. It makes sense then that those around her refuse to be fooled by the façade anymore. Whether it’s a potential friend in someone who had to conquer similar demons of his own (Andre Royo‘s Royal) or a couple strangers (Scott Subiono and Matt Lauria) forcing her to reconcile the person she is with the person she wishes she could be, Leslie has nothing else to do but embrace the pain or fight to leave it behind. The result can be devastating. Add the right amount of humor and heart, however, and a melancholic hope peeks through.
Courtesy of Momentum Pictures