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JUSTIN TANNER REVIEWS

TO LESLIE


by Justin Tanner

 

As a recovering alcoholic, I take special interest in movies about addiction. I find them strangely consoling.

Being on the other side (so far) of the dependency equation allows me to enjoy the harrowing nature of all the cinematic tropes of the obsession story:

The wreckage of an unmanageable life; the depression, self- loathing, hiding, lying, and repeated vain attempts to quit; the crash of hitting bottom, the dark night of the soul, the divine intervention; detox, followed by the high wire act of potential relapse; and finally, forgiveness (of self and from others) coupled with redemption, a new beginning, and a renewed hope for a future.


COURTESY OF MOMENTUM PICTURES

This narrative structure (or something close to it) is a fixed feature of nearly every drug, alcohol, gambling, sex or food addiction story; as reliable as the ‘marriage plot’ in a Trollope novel. It’s part of what makes them such rich comfort food.

And, like a four course meal, where you know what’s coming and the pleasure is found in the reliable old schematic of the familiar — appetizer, salad, main course, dessert — every now and then the chef’s imagination pushes the experience into something transcendent.

Likewise, when an insightful writer with a deeply personal story hooks up with an experienced and sensitive TV director — making his first feature — and one of the greatest actors in modern cinema, the resulting variation on what might have otherwise been a dependable but rote addiction story rises to the level of near-masterpiece.

“To Leslie” is a breathtaking drama from director Michael Morris (”Better Call Saul”) which seemed to come out of nowhere last Friday, here at the outset of awards season, where every week brings another questionable clutch of overpraised festival-fodder jockeying for pole position on the Gold Derby Oscar nom list.

It tells the moving, true story of a Texas woman (based on screenwriter Ryan Binaco’s own mother) who, after winning $190,000 in the lottery, proceeded to blow up her life, spectacularly, in a matter of months.


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Andrea Riseborough (”Death of Stalin” “Possessor”) plays the title character, a single mom whose problematic drinking, exacerbated by the prize money, ends up costing her everything, family, friends, job, car, home (and nearly her life).

We first meet Leslie moments after the announcement of her win, jumping around for TV cameras; an instant celebrity in her small Texas town. We also see the pale, depressed little boy who is her son, and it’s clear from his grim reaction that he is all too aware of the approaching disaster of this unearned windfall.

The film then jumps to six years later where an unrecognizable Riseborough, strung out and raging, is evicted from her slummy apartment. From here we watch her character sink lower and lower into a seemingly inescapable abyss of misery.

What saves this inherently bleak tale from overwhelming gloom is Riseborough’s vast imagination, which finds rich veins of pathos, humor and self-laceration in every moment.  Using her deft intellect and nimble physicality to bring such layers of raw humanity to every tiny psychic shift, her performance engenders a kind of awe.

Leslie is morose when alone, wheedling with friends and relatives, and grimly, almost maniacally determined when she needs another drink.

But Leslie comes marvelously alive every time she steps into a crowded, dark bar. Her anxious delight as she waits for her drinks to be delivered; the casual/manic camaraderie she shares with barkeeps and waitresses; the cringe-inducing way she aggressively flirts with every unsuspecting male who comes within reach; it’s a marvel of comedic timing mixed with a balletic level of corporeal control.

In one scene, she simply stumbles across the bar, moving her jacket and purse from one perch to another. But the way she subtly eyeballs every patron in the room — leering sarcastically at one group, rolling her eyes at another — all while dolefully smiling to herself as an underlying chasm of anguish burbles underneath, manages to be simultaneously hilarious and deeply, painfully poignant. I’ve never in my years of cinematic movie-going been more anxious for a character to put down the goddamn booze.

Yet director Morris and writer Binaco are in no hurry to get to the inevitable point of turn around. They want us to feel, on the molecular level, what desperation, obsession, helplessness and surrender are. And just when I’d reached my limit of watching her burn every bridge in sight, Leslie, finding herself in a bar at last call, hears a particularly apt Willie Nelson song on the jukebox. And she suddenly has a blinding moment of clarity.

The supporting cast (which includes the brilliant Alison Janney (”I, Tonya”) as a mean local gal with an axe to grind; the endearing Owen Teague (”The Stand”) as Leslie’s long-suffering son; and the usually snarky Marc Maron (”GLOW”) as a sweet-natured guy who falls for her) are uniformly excellent: Director Morris has guided everyone to utterly real, blistering performances full of teeth and unexpected turns.


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At two hours, the movie is perhaps ten minutes too long. The emotionally rich ending, which — prepare yourself — is a weeper, would no doubt hit even harder if it came a little bit sooner.

But that is the tiniest of quibbles in a movie that had my rapt attention from first frame to final fade out. Perfectly cast, directed with vibrant sensitivity and written with the ring of truth that only comes through lived experience, “To Leslie” is as good as it gets.

Streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Vudu

 

 

An LA-based playwright, JUSTIN TANNER has more than twenty produced plays to his credit, including Voice Lessons, Day Drinkers, Space Therapy, Wife Swappers, and Coyote Woman. His Pot Mom received the PEN-West Award for Best Play.

He has written for the TV shows Gilmore Girls, My So-Called Life and the short-lived Love Monkey. He wrote, directed and edited 88 episodes of the web series Ave 43, available on YouTube.

Tanner is the current Playwright in Residence for the Rogue Machine Theatre in Hollywood, where his new play Little Theatre will opens in December of 2022.

 

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Gordy Grundy

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