To Leslie – Snapshot
To Leslie showcases a terrific performance by Andrea Riseborough. Unfortunately, its treatment of addiction and substance abuse does not rise to her performance level. (3*)
Where to Watch:
Rent: Prime/Apple/YouTube/Google ($4)
To Leslie – The Oscar Buzz
Leading Actress (Andrea Riseborough)
To Leslie received a single major nomination for Andrea Riseborough, for leading actress, playing Leslie. This is Riseborough’s first Oscar nomination, but she is active in British film and television and earned a BAFTA nomination for her television work in Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley (08). Allison Janney, who has a supporting role in To Leslie as her estranged friend, Nancy, previously won the Supporting Actress Oscar for I, Tonya (17).
(Note: there was a controversy in this year’s Oscar season regarding the campaigning for Riseborough. Apparently, several of Riseborough’s supporters, including Edward Norton and Gwyneth Paltrow, made multiple social media posts for her in the Best Actress race, primarily because she wasn’t well known. However, some of those posts included negative comments about the other competitors and Oscar rules prohibit that kind of thing. It turns out, however, that the To Leslie production team did very little to support her and so most of her help was informally organized and, therefore, maybe a little ignorant of the rules. So she maintained her status but still lost to Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once), for the Best Actress race.)
To Leslie – The Movie’s Family Tree
The Following Movies Share Talent with This One (and if you like these films, you might like this one):
Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad (TV some episodes) : Director (Morris); Editor (McCaleb)
Everything Everywhere All at Once (22) : Cinematographer (Seiple)
I, Tonya (17) / Bombshell (19) : Acting (Janney)
To Leslie is not the product of a well seasoned movie team. Director Michael Morris has his primary footings in the TV world. Interestingly, though, he directed several episodes of two TV series that also take place in the American Southwest and it appears he brought his editor over from those experiences. Script-Writer Ryan Binaco has only written for one other film, which I haven’t seen. I thought it was also interesting that the cinematographer, Larkin Seiple, also worked on this year’s Best Picture Winner. Although I do recognize Allison Janney’s work from a couple of films I’ve seen, I do not recognize any of the other actors from their other work, including, unfortunately, that of Andrea Riseborough. In short, this film does not have a very long geneology.
To Leslie – What Others Think
Audience reaction to this film hasn’t been terrific, with rankings in the lower middle of this year’s general interest movies. It was tied with Living in this year’s rankings. It should be noted, however, that not a whole lot of people have rated this movie possibly because the subject matter is a little bit tough.
Critics, though, often have to watch a film regardless of its content and they have generally been very positive placing the film sixth out of 25 general interest films, again tied with Living. But, once again, the critical rankings are based on a limited number of reviews (only 19 in the case of MetaCritic).
Reviewers found it easy to rave about Riseborough but not a whole lot else. Brian Tallerico (Roger Ebert) calls it “a personal and heartfelt drama with yet another stellar turn from the always-great Andrea Riseborough. The actress gives one of her career best performances as Leslie.” Matt Zoller Seitz (also RogerEbert) noted that “the character of Leslie and Riseborough’s performance in the role are greater than the film that surrounds them.” Later in his review, Seitz notes “Her performance is so determined not to pander to the audience or celebrate her own virtuosity that it makes you feel as if you’re seeing not an established international actress, but a newcomer playing a version of herself.”
To Leslie – Special Mention
Addiction and Movies – The theme of alcohol and substance addiction has been around in movies almost since the very beginning of the industry. And why not, alcohol and substance use has been part of the human story since before recorded history began. (There is evidence of beer being intentionally fermented from grain dating back to as early as 9000 BC). For better or worse, humans and mind-altering substances have been mixing for as long as humans have had minds to alter. Alcohol and substance abuse has probably been around just as long, but until recently, addiction has been sidelined and, at least as a medical problem, conveniently ignored. What follows is a brief history of substance abuse in the movies, using only those that I have seen – there are dozens more.
Early movies portrayed alcohol abuse, almost as simply another way of having some fun although not without its consequences. The Lost Weekend (45) was described as “terrifying” as it followed Ray Milland’s desperation through a four day drinking bout. Jack Lemmon plays a drunk who seduces his wife into his lifestyle in Days of Wine and Roses (62), a movie that begins to explore how abuse can become contagious. Interestingly, I don’t remember any significant films on the subject during the 70s – maybe because I was busy into learning about the stuff myself.
But the 80s and 90s heaped a pile of movies on us. In Drugstore Cowboy (89), Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch go on a drug-fueled crime spree. And in Sid and Nancy (86), Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb spin a tragic tale that doesn’t end well for the Sex Pistols’ bass player. And, one of the best movies on the subject, Nicholas Cage and Elisabeth Shue tells the gut-wrenching story of a man determined to kill himself by drinking in Leaving Las Vegas (95). If you only watch one of these films, that’s the one to pick.
Perhaps because drinking and substance abuse has ratcheted up over the last couple decades, several films have popped up that deal with the issues one way or another and, frankly, some are better than others. Traffic (00) explores the immense complexities of the international drug trade down to its impact on daily lives. In 28 Days (00), Sandra Bullock’s character trashes her sister’s wedding and is pretty much forced into a rehabilitation program. And in Flight (12) Denzel Washington shows how denial creeps into even decisions about how to pilot a commercial aircraft.
Most recently, movies that explore the subject include Bradley Cooper washing out in a sea of substances, much to the chagrin of Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (19). Elton John hits rock bottom but manages to recover in Rocketman (19). And drug addiction hits a family at Christmas time in Ben is Back (18). Last year’s Oscar list included Four Good Days (20), where Mila Kunis plays an addict whose mother (Glenn Close) may be able to help her recover. And this year, Elvis (22) tells the well known descent of one of music’s greatest stars while The Whale (22) treats an addiction to food with consequences just as bad as other addictions.
Substance abuse and addiction have been with us for, literally, forever. So it isn’t surprising that movies try to capture the current feelings for the problem, its impact on both the addict and their families, and our amazingly lame attempts at curing it.
To Leslie – Michael’s Moments
To Leslie is a good, but not great film. I agree with Matt Zoller Seitz (RogerEbert) that “the character of Leslie and Riseborough’s performance in the role are greater than the film that surrounds them.” There is only one reason to see this movie and that is for her performance. Although I am unfamiliar with this British actress, I often became interested in her facial expressions and her pensive pauses. Riseborough has an intriguing way of conveying emotion, not with expressive outbursts, but with more like peering into the flames of a quiet fire in the fireplace, slowly burning itself out. You see flickering shapes and subtle messages, not loud pops and bangs. (I don’t think she out-acted Anna de Armas (Glass Onion) but she definitely portrayed more gut feeling than Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once))
There are a few other good things about To Leslie. Unusually, I enjoyed the songs. More than just background music, the songs are usually played at a bar and Leslie hears them and reacts to them. With songs by Linda Perry, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton, there is a definite country-western tone to the film, but, hey, it is situated in West Texas, so the music is entirely appropriate. There is one song, in particular that plays when Leslie is in a bar, drunk, and contemplating her life. The song (and I don’t know whose it is) talks about “is this the place you want to be.” Leslie’s reaction and apparent understanding of that moment is one of the highlights of the movie.
And yes, the cinematography makes use of 35mm film, intentionally to keep it looking like the 70s when it takes place. So, yes, there are some other creative elements.
But – always a “but” – the film fails mostly on the script. Even at two hours, it seems like it needs to be longer because there are just too many elements that don’t hang together. Her relationship with her son is early on explored in some depth and he shows very courageous actions towards his Mom. But we just don’t know much about what happened from the first scenes, when he is just 13 years old to these next moments when he is 19. Yes, the movie says “Six Years Later”, but those are extremely critical six years in a son’s life and we have no idea how he became the young man that he is now.
Equally important is what happened to Leslie during those six years. We are led to believe that she pretty much messed everything up, but we have no idea how. Her relationship with her best friends, Nancy and Dutch, has been destroyed, but we never know why.
I get that viewers don’t want to spend four hours in a theater watching someone destroy their life. But we need context in order for this movie to work. Leslie’s changes and the movie’s ending, while hopeful and heartwarming, aren’t really to be expected. As someone who has dealt with substance and alcohol problems, both personally, and with immediate family members, I know how difficult these things can be. I don’t think the writer and director have communicated that they understand too!
Watch Riseborough’s performance and listen to the music carefully. But don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the story! (3*)