Review: In ‘To Leslie,’ an Unflinching Working-Class Elegy

The small-budget indie is a complex portrait of the ways that trauma and addiction haunt an alcoholic mother, and her family, in the South.

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By Beandrea July

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In gritty detail, “To Leslie” traces the fall of a one-time lottery winner who, years later, has lost everything she holds dear. The British actress Andrea Riseborough (“Nancy”) gives a deft performance as Leslie, an alcoholic mother in West Texas barreling toward rock bottom in this deceptively simple yet heart-wrenching character study.

Allison Janney, Marc Maron, Owen Teague and Andre Royo fill out the solid ensemble cast in this small-budget indie, which accomplishes what its bigger-budget peer “Hillbilly Elegy” wanted to, but couldn’t pull off: a complex portrait of the ways in which trauma and addiction haunt a working-class white family in the South.

The director, Michael Morris, knows from the start what movie he’s making: one that robs us of our easy assumptions about who Leslie is. She’s unbearably flawed, and the screenwriter Ryan Binaco explains why without forcing long beats of exposition upon the viewer. And he does so while still leaving room for surprise. Leslie doesn’t tank her sobriety when we think she will, yet her recovery is free of narrative subterfuge.

The cinematography by Larkin Seiple (“Everything Everywhere All At Once”) is a real feat of visual character development: The camera movement is both protective of Leslie and unflinching in its raw portrayal of her vulnerability. Some of the most affecting shots take place at the bar, like one close-up where Leslie spars with the guy who wants to bed her — “Tell me I’m good.” It’s shot with a depth of field that keeps Leslie’s face in focus, while the rest of the frame is blurred.

“To Leslie” probably could have left 15 more minutes on the cutting room floor. But its intermittent lags don’t diminish the overall satisfaction one feels in the film’s final act, when Leslie’s rocky road settles into something believably triumphant.

To Leslie
Rated R for explicit language and violence. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. Rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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