Watching someone self-destruct is a hallmark of cinema, especially character-based dramas. However, to do one properly isn’t easy easy as some storytellers think. You need an intriguing premise, sure, but you really need an actor and/or actress who can keep you captivated throughout. In the case of To Leslie, which is a dramatized version of a real life story, having a pair of strong performances is the difference Without them, the film would feel ordinary. With them, it’s a movie that you can’t look away from, even when it occasionally challenges you to do so. They make all the difference in the world here.
To Leslie is a showcase for a pair of strong performances. Aside from them, the movie is fine, but far less remarkable than they are. Marc Maron and in particular Andrea Riseborough are just incredibly compelling, taking your hand and preventing the film’s rougher stretches from every becoming too much to get through.
Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother West Texas single mother that sees her days of struggling look like they’re coming to an end when she wins the lottery. However, her dreams of the good life only lasted a few years, before the money dries up. Leslie is now an alcoholic and addict, unreliable and living off of charm. Seeking out her son James (Owen Teague) for help, that only lasts so long before her self-destructive ways cause more problems. Without anywhere to turn, Leslie is forced to return home to her former friends Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root), but finds them less than welcoming. Her days of causing others pain have left her without options, or so it seems.
When Sweeney (Marc Maron), a lonely motel clerk comes across Leslie, he takes a chance on her when no one else will. Employing and befriending her, she might just have a second chance. With Sweeney’s support, Leslie begins to face the consequences of her actions, as well as her regret. Of course, recovery is slow and redemption is a process, so there are fits and starts, but he never gives up on her.
Andrea Riseborough has rarely been better than she is here in the lead, while Marc Maron does career best work in a prime supporting role. Both are given parts like this far too infrequently, so it’s a pleasure to see. Riseborough shows why she’s one of the industry’s most underrated talents, while Maron takes an unlikely character for him and more than makes it his own. It’s as impressive as anything he’s done on screens, to date. Allison Janney and Stephen Root are under-used, while Owen Teague isn’t a major factor. Other cast members here include Andre Royo, Stephanie Wong, and more.
Director Michael Morris and writer Ryan Binaco hit most of the expected notes in this redemption tale, inspired by a true story. Binaco’s script is more or less of the garden variety nature, while Morris rightly just focuses things on Riseborough. When Maron enters the story he’s allowed to shine, too, so kudos for that out of the box casting. However, with a bit tighter pacing, To Leslie might have soared a little higher. The first act is easily telegraphed and takes too long. From there on, it’s a bit smoother sailing.
To Leslie is a bit downbeat, but watching Maron and especially Riseborough makes it something worth enduring. There are times where the repetition and depressing bits become a lot, but eventually, the redemption works its charm. As an acting exercise at least, it more than does what it sets out to do.