Moving Pictures
Feb 21, 2023, 06:27AM

To Leslie is Exactly the Kind of Film That Wins Oscars

It’s hard to believe the star’s nomination caused a controversy.

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Andrea Riseborough’s nomination for best actress in Michael Morris’ To Leslie has been billed as “the season’s most surprising” by Vulture. It was considered so unlikely that the Academy investigated it, concerned that actresses lobbying for Riseborough had somehow tainted the process. It’s bizarre. Studio lobbying on behalf of their films is a longstanding and institutionalized feature of the Oscars. Moreover, Riseborough’s performance is the exact kind of performance you’d expect judges to throw accolades at. To Leslie is a small-budget indie film, but in every other respect it’s prime Oscar bait.

Riseborough’s title character is an alcoholic single mother from West Texas. She wins $190,000 in the Lotto, but even that can’t save her from her remorseless addiction. The movie starts six years after her windfall; she’s spent it all and is evicted from her ratty apartment. She goes to stay with her partially estranged, now 20-year-old son James, played with nervous sadness by Owen Teague. That sadness is justified;  she almost immediately steals from his roommate, and he kicks her. She ends up back in her hometown, homeless, despised, hitting bottom.

If you know the Oscars, you know she doesn’t stay on the bottom. Sweeney (Marc Maron), a hotel manager, gives her one last chance, which she takes. She dries out, fixes her relationships, finds new romance, pulls herself up by her bootstraps, etc. Cue tears and final embrace. As the music swells at the end, you can hear the judges wiping their eyes and reassuring each other they’ve witnessed the transformative power of cinema.

This is inspirational dreck for people who think they’re too highbrow for Hallmark cards. The extent of the bathos is wrenchingly obvious if you compare To Leslie with something like Hulu’s 2021 Jacinta—a documentary of a real-life single mother’s addiction.

The documentary offers no swelling music and no easy optimism. Jacinta’s only sliver of success is that she manages to throw her daughter clear of the wreck of her life, rather than perpetuating the generational trauma that her mother passed on to her. In comparison, Leslie’s complete triumph over her demons in the span of 120 minutes feels glib—and worse, it suggests that other addicts could win true love and successful entrepreneurship if only they had more willpower.

The Academy likes glib. And to be fair, To Leslie is an accomplished uplift delivery system. Riseborough uses her thin frame to advantage; she’s angles and transparent deception, shifting from wheedling to rage to self-disgust with frightening facility. She throws everything she’s got at the screen in the very first scene as she thrashes and staggers around the apartment alternately pleading with and haranguing her neighbors, and she keeps it up for two hours until everyone around her, in the movie and watching the movie, is wrung out. It’s not a subtle performance. But it’s compelling.

The supporting cast—Allison Janney, Stephen Root, Andre Royo—shuffle into their dusty Texas quirks with winning charisma. And the soundtrack is top-notch, with lots of Waylon and Willie, Dolly Parton, George Jones, and an unexpected departure from country via Freddie King’s thunderous blues rock classic “Goin Down.”

To Leslie is accomplished, remarkably slick given its budget, and predictable. All of its ugly truths are carefully polished; all of its wounds are systematically healed. It assures its audience that people of character and good heart can overcome their problems, which appeals to an audience of wealthy, successful people who’d like to believe that their achievements are a sign that they’re people of character and good heart. Riseborough’s nomination doesn’t break any new ground for the Oscars. The fact that it even raised an eyebrow is a reminder of just how ridiculously insular and unadventurous the Academy is.


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