If you’ve been following the news regarding this year’s film award season, you might have heard the controversy surrounding Andrea Riseborough’s Best Actress Oscar nomination for the indie drama, To Leslie. Apparently the production couldn’t afford traditional ad campaigns designed to curry favor with Academy voters. Instead, a grassroots approach inspired actors like Edward Norton and fellow competitor Cate Blanchett to sing Riseborough’s praises on social media. Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance, used Instagram to declare, “Andrea should win every award there is and all the ones that haven’t been invented yet.” This raised concerns that Oscar campaign guidelines were violated. They weren’t, and because in Hollywood any publicity is good publicity, To Leslie is finally getting the attention it deserved all along.
So, who is Andrea Riseborough? You’ve almost certainly seen her before even if you can’t place the name. Riseborough is a British actor who typically chooses parts that defy pigeonholing, and her versatile facial features allow for radically different looks. Slight changes to makeup, hair, and lighting, combined with her ability to disappear inside her roles, can make her challenging to recognize. In To Leslie, Riseborough, as the titular character, transforms herself into a middle-aged woman living in West Texas that looks like she was “rode hard and hung up wet,” as someone rudely describes her. Six years earlier, Leslie won a $190,000 lottery at the local watering hole. Now she carries everything she owns in one suitcase. That’s because Leslie is a non-functioning alcoholic who burned through her winnings about as fast as she burned her bridges. Alcoholism has all but reduced her ability to communicate to others in one of two ways, either ingratiating attempts at manipulation, or foul-mouthed rants. Regarding the latter, expletives can be clever, even artful. But when Leslie spews vulgarities, it’s pure pent-up anger.
Fortunately, there’s more to Leslie’s story than just a depressing downward spiral. After she becomes homeless, screws up an attempt to reconnect with her estranged son, then screws up yet again after she’s offloaded to an old friend, she passes out drunk on the side of a cheap motel. Sweeney, a motel worker played by Marc Maron with “I should know better” written all over his face, attempts to give Leslie a break by pretending he’s confusing her with a job applicant, offering her seven dollars an hour plus room and board. Her alcohol-addled brain is slow to process his kind gesture, but she accepts, leading to a contentious friendship, and possibly more.
The excellent supporting cast includes Owen Teague as Leslie’s son, Allison Janney and Stephen Root as her biker friends, and Andre Royo as Sweeney’s boss, a semi-recovered acidhead who occasionally enjoys howling and running around naked. As terrific as they are, To Leslie is first and foremost a showcase for Riseborough’s incredible range. Whether generating nerve-wracking suspense merely by staring down a drink while struggling with abstinence, or using her entire physicality in a pathetic attempt at seduction on a barroom dance floor, she imbues Leslie with a deep-rooted self-loathing and a heartbreaking desire to be loved that solicits our empathy. To Leslie is the type of film adults would flock to before Disney and superheroes saturated the market. Here’s hoping Andrea Riseborough’s controversial but well deserved Oscar nod inspires lovers of mature cinema to seek it out.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski
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