For an actor, there’s an obvious appeal to playing an out-of-control drunk. You can fight, you can rage, you can tap into your inner party animal, you can rotate emotions like a human mood ring, you can descend into the kind of degraded mess that’s the lower version of a price-bait transformation. Yet to give a truly stellar performance as an alcoholic, you have to toe the old line about it – that someone who’s drunk works hard do not act like this. They try to deceive the world the same way they deceive themselves.
In “To Leslie,” Andrea Riseborough plays a single mother from a small town in West Texas who is a hopeless case, the kind of alcoholic who has ruined her life so badly that she has nothing left. Riseborough’s performance is nothing short of spectacular. She doesn’t compromise, she doesn’t hold back, but she doesn’t give the character any kind of fake flamboyance. In each scene, she shows you what Leslie looks like on the outside – the precise level of dissipation, of her sozzled “charm” and of her displayed, stunted anger – but she also tells you what’s going on inside her: the woman who drinks covers .
The opening credits play over a remarkable little montage of blotchy snapshots that tell the story of Leslie in younger and better days. Next, we are shown a TV report of her on the day she won the lottery. That was six years ago, when her son was just 13 and she’s a local hero who screams and screams like a Holly Hunter crackpot because she gets a check for $190,000 after tax. . It’s not the pasha fortune it once might have been, but it’s cushion enough for her to build her life on.
Flashing on Leslie in her current state, we don’t need to know what happened to the money. It’s obvious. She drank it (or pissed it in some other drunk form), and now she’s like a pale alien with staring eyes and a ratty tangle of half-black, half-platinum hair, hiding vodka shots with a pint chaser or getting thrown out of the motel where she lived, because none of the monthly renters will lend her any more money.
In my opinion, you can’t have too many addiction movies – the subject is too central to what the world has become – but maybe at this point we’ve all seen too many movies in 12 stages of classical structure, with their almost ritualized drama of getting clean and embracing the rules and confessing the pain and relapsing and falling back and getting back up and learning to live again. In “To Leslie”, Riseborough’s Leslie is in the desperate grip of her addiction for much of the film, and even when she withdraws from alcohol, her motley existence threatens to consume her. It’s the drama of a woman in purgatory, and directed by Michael Morris, from a screenplay by Kyle Binaco, it’s a diary that hooks us in the form of a picaresque drug addict. For two hours, we don’t know where Leslie will land next any more than she does, which gives the film a searing, unvarnished quality.
For most of the film, there isn’t a teaspoon of feel-good sugar to wash away the drama of addictive agony. “To Leslie” is a gut-ripping experience – probably the best portrayal of addiction in working-class Central America since Vera Farmiga played a cocaine-addicted supermarket cashier in “Down to the Bone.” As famous as a performance Robert Duvall gave 40 years ago in “Tender Mercies,” it always bothered me that this Oscar-studded drama about a recovering alcoholic starts with his hollowness. Sure, you can say what comes next – staying sober – is the hardest part, but in a way, you can’t really to know a drunk until you know he’s drunk. In “To Leslie”, we are privy to all of Leslie’s lies and manipulations, the scorched pride she wears like broken armor. When she begins, bit by bit, to recover, you are never far from the abyss that threatens to push her back.
Homeless, she takes a bus to an unnamed town to stay with her son, James (Owen Teague), who is now a gloomy, burly 19-year-old construction worker with slicked back hair that makes him look like a version of young John Travolta. He makes room for his wrecked mother, but with one basic rule: don’t drink. Which she accepts but does not intend to respect. James could have added “no theft”, as she rummages through every drawer and misplaced jeans pocket looking for cash, eventually stealing it from her roommate (Catfish Jean). When James learns of all this and sees the plastic vodka fifths hidden under his mattress, he calls the police to evict him.
Lesser drama would have been all about how mother and son bond again. In it, Leslie is sent back to her hometown, where everyone knows everyone, and she’s an infamous fallen figure – the lotto winner who ruined everything and now haunts bars with her lipstick. too bright red, coming to this or that cowboy. Riseborough shows us something remarkable: a smile that’s buried unless Leslie is so snuggled up she can feel her sexiness again. But the only reason she goes to these men now is to feel it, and they can see right through her act. When a polite stud refuses his advances on the dance floor, the look of cold, silent resignation on his face is devastating. At this time, we see a dream die.
But maybe you have to. Redemption, or at least the first thrills, comes in the form of a job offered to him by a lonely, benevolent motel manager named Sweeney, played by Marc Maron in a performance that proves he’s a better David Strathairn than David Strathairn. We have to accept the slight ploy of him giving her a job as a maid when she barely seems capable of doing it. Again, the idea is that maybe he can see what we can’t (yet) see: the softer, more competent Leslie that’s there inside. The motel appears to be an actual location (the sign outside that says “free wi-fi” is the only indication that the film is set in the present and not a previous run-down decade), and it’s operated by Sweeney and his partner, Royal, played by Andre Royo as an acid victim. The little abandoned ice cream shack across the street, where Leslie squats for a night or two, is a marvel of bombed-out design: a place that, like Leslie, is hopeless and dilapidated enough to give the film a optimistic side. -pretty last chapter.
Along the way, there’s a searing performance from Allison Janney as the half of the couple who were Leslie’s friends, until Leslie makes it impossible; it’s a bit of a shock to see Janney act out painful villainy purged of comedy. And Owen Teague, as James, makes his owl quietude felt. But the film belongs to Riseborough, who in the second half comes alive, scene by scene, like a flower that slowly unwrinkles. It’s still a scarred and wounded flower, with its glory days behind it. But now, at last, he can breathe, and the audience, in response, lets out a sigh that sounds like pity.