To Leslie Review: Andrea Riseborough Is Astounding As An Alcoholic Stumbling Towards Redemption [SXSW]

"Leaving Las Vegas," "Crazy Heart," and "A Star Is Born" are just a few of the acclaimed films featuring tragic struggles with alcoholism anchored by a phenomenal lead performance. We can officially add "To Leslie" to the shortlist of hard-hitting, booze-drenched dramas, thanks to Andrea Riseborough ("Oblivion," "Possessor") delivering an astounding performance as a woman who burns bridges with everyone who cares about her just as quickly as she throws back shots and beers.

"To Leslie" tells the story of the titular West Texas mother who once found herself on top of the world by winning a $190,000 lottery jackpot. Despite cheering about buying a nice house and changing her life, six years later, we find Leslie looking far worse for wear, being kicked out of her motel after falling behind on her rent. Left broke and homeless with just some family photos and a pile of filthy clothes, she only finds solace at the bottom of a bottle, and she's forced to reach out to those who have since given up on her — and for good reason.

Right off the bat, it must be mentioned how phenomenal Andrea Riseborough is in "To Leslie." It may be too soon to start prognosticating awards buzz, but I hope Riseborough will be in the running for some trophies when the time comes. It's a transformative performance on its own, but it's also enhanced by an impressive make-up job along the lines of Nicole Kidman in "Destroyer," making her rough-around-the-edges, to say the least. From Riseborough's drunken, dead-eyed gaze to her unstable physical demeanor, this isn't an overly theatrical performance, but an authentic portrayal of a perpetually inebriated woman at the end of her spirit-soaked rope.

But Leslie isn't looking to drink herself to death. Instead, she's desperate to get close to anyone in order to get her next drink. That includes reconnecting with her son James (Owen Teague of "IT" and "The Stand"), who is already on edge about letting Leslie back into his life, for fear that she'll be drowning in the drink yet again. When that takes a turn south, she ends up being sent back to her dusty, dead hometown to live with family "friends" Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root), a biker couple who took care of James as a kid when Leslie skipped town, and they haven't forgotten what a drunken f**k-up Leslie was before she disappeared. If there's one complaint I have about "To Leslie," it's that there's not nearly enough leather-clad, tough love Janney and Root, and I can't help but wish there was a whole other movie with those excellent character actors in this form. 

Familiar but no less praiseworthy

Once Leslie has exhausted her familial and friend options, she's back on the street, with only a pink suitcase in tow. However, she's about to get a chance to turn her life around when motel manager Sweeney (Marc Maron of "GLOW") can't help but feel sorry for Leslie in her desperate state. Despite objection by his business partner and motel owner Royal (Andre Royo of "Empire"), who knows Leslie's reputation all too well, Sweeney offers her a job cleaning up the motel, complete with room and board. Even that isn't immediately enough to stop Leslie's drunken foibles.

What follows is a familiar story of redemption and romance that you often find on the film festival circuit, but that doesn't make it any less praiseworthy. The story doesn't play out in a cheesy fashion, and Riseborough is so fantastic in her role that I found myself wincing whenever she would even come close to relapsing as she slowly cleans up her act. The moments where Leslie is still off the wagon are hard to watch, with Riseborough drunkenly flirting, slurring, and wobbling around bars pathetically in an effort to have some guy buy her a drink. You can practically smell the booze on her. Thankfully, Maron brings a much-needed warmth and kindness to the proceedings, shedding his typically cynical and sarcastic demeanor to be not just a charming romantic interest but a considerate man whose time with an alcoholic wife and inexperience with Leslie's past has made him the last hope she has at turning everything around. But even with Sweeney's help, it's still up to Leslie to stay dry.

"To Leslie" doesn't reinvent the wheel when it comes to alcoholic drama, but director Michael Morris, who has worked on shows from "Better Call Saul" to "Smash," knows how to dig into these characters without relying on overt sentimentality. Alongside the performances, this is largely what makes "To Leslie" work so well in the face of being conventional. Leslie's journey is rough, even wearying, but it never feels melodramatic. Perhaps that's because screenwriter Ryan Binaco wrote this script based on his own mother. Unfortunately, it's a story that many people know all too well, and that makes it hit that much harder.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10