There is something downright ugly about a woman drinking herself to death in public. But then, somebody has to do the dirty job. Andrea Riseborough’s portrayal of an alcoholic mother sinking to the bottom-most level of self-degradation, is perhaps the best portrayal of drunken despair that I have seen before or after Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.
Ms Riseborough, I confess is a revelation. I have not seen much of her work except Brighton Rock and Possessor where she ripped the screen apart with her unvarnished virtuosity. In To Leslie she is viscerally compelling. I couldn’t take my eyes off her devastated face every time she was on screen , which is most of the time.
It’s a pity that she holds our attention so rigidly , as there is so much more to admire in first-time feature film director Michael Morris’ essay on self-destruction.
To Leslie just kills you with its fatal realism. From the first time we see Leslie on screen as she exults in her triumph after winning the lottery in her smalltown in Texas , to her absolute degradation and self-abnegation, the performance just blows us away. Throughout I kept wondering what Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway would have been had Ms Riseborough played the lead instead of Jennifer Lawrence.
Not that Ms Lawrence lacked in emotional velocity. But Riseborough is born to play characters who stand facing the wrath of life’s vicissitudes . Leslie is shot in cramped rooms of suburban apartments and motels where she does what she thinks is rehabilitation.Little does she know! Her addiction is so internalized we the audience feel her pain and humiliation almost first-hand.
Her son(played with gentle candour by Owen Teague) takes her in on condition that she won’t drink. But of course she does. She then ends up in her hometown shacking up with her former friend(the supremely talented Allison Janney with an unnecessarily dyed hair and camp makeup) , kicked out of there too after a night of drop-dead drinking.
It is here that Leslie gets one more chance to mend her life. A kind motelier Sweeny(Marc Maron) comes forward with a job , accommodation and heaps of undeserved kindness.
Why is Sweeny so kind to the totally unruly Leslie? I guess the answer to that lies in the glimmer of hope that we always find in the darkest of times.
To Leslie is not really a story of hope. But it is not without hope either. It gives us a heroine who is heroic for being able to survive her own monstrous weaknesses. We don’t applaud her for it. But at the end she is not a complete failure. We buy that.