SXSW 2022 Review: Squandering a Lottery Ticket Leads to Good Fortune in the Winning Drama “To Leslie”

There’s a scene at the center of “To Leslie” that most movies would kill to have, the camera slowly drifting towards its titular character (Andrea Riseborough) as she’s considering drowning her sorrows in beer at a bar in her hometown, only brought back by all the bad fortune that has occurred because of her drinking. Funnily enough, the bar was once the spot of her greatest luck, winning $190,000 off a scratcher, and she can’t help laugh as Willie Nelson croons, “Are you sure this is where you want to be?” It surely isn’t for Leslie, but a sadness sets in when you know there’s nowhere else for her to go, having arrived back in West Texas after her 19-year-old son James (Owen Teague) realized he couldn’t leave her alone at his apartment in Houston while he worked construction without falling into some kind of trouble.

Though she barks incredulously at the loud speakers to note the irony, you don’t need much beyond the anguished expression on Leslie’s face to know exactly what she’s feeling in the moment, resigned to her lot in life to some degree by all the times she’s tried to change her fate and have it spectacularly blow up in her face and inherently rebellious, knowing what she’s capable of and discontent any time someone suggests she has limitations. It is the kind of mix of emotions that Riseborough is so gifted at reflecting all in one look, and that Michael Morris, who previously worked with the actress on “Bloodline,” is careful to capture fully in his moving feature debut, a drama that wisely wears Leslie’s considerable problems lightly when redemption can only come in putting the past behind her.

Opening with an understated yet clever opening title sequence in which pictures of Leslie, ranging from boozy fun times are interspersed with family photos and police photos that suggest abuse, cut across the screen, the film doubles back from a brief stay at her son’s place and then with Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root), who previously took him in when she was at her worst, after being evicted from a motel she is no longer able to pay for to working at one run by Sweeney (Marc Maron) and Royal (Andre Royo) where she grew up. It would not be a surprise to learn that writer Ryan Binaco grew up in such a small town himself when “To Leslie” gets all the dynamics just right of a place where everyone can be quite familiar with everyone else yet still feel like strangers, and while the arrival of Leslie makes for fresh grist for the gossip mill when there isn’t much left to talk about, the locals’ penchant for talking about who she was makes it even more disorienting for her as she tries to become a different person.

Inevitably, the bottle reemerges as a cold comfort to Leslie, but rock bottom comes and goes so quietly you can’t be entirely sure it happened, a refreshing break from most narratives concerning alcoholism, and instead the difficult work of sobering up is presented as small epiphanies that only an actress as formidable as Riseborough can make feel big. Her presence, along with a thoroughly impressive cast and crew, suggest “To Leslie” should be of a grander scale as a production than it is, but ends up feeling deeper in such skilled hands. A particularly beautiful relationship blossoms between Leslie and Sweeney, thanks to the feisty give-and-take between Riseborough and Maron, and any concern that the film will descend into a hackneyed tearjerker is pushed away by some unexpected flourish, whether it’s some setting-specific touch like its lead’s mischievously curly Texas drawl or a stray observation at a county fair, or subtle stylistic touch such as the way in which cinematographer Larkin Seiple will move with the character as she forges ahead or detach the gaze from her when there is a setback she can’t quite yet see for herself. In “To Leslie,” whether the wind is at her back or against her, what you’re watching comes across as a cool breeze.

“To Leslie” will screen at SXSW on March 18th at 9:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar A.