When I was in middle school, a classmate’s family won the lottery. I don’t remember the exact amount, but my increasingly hazy memory is telling me it was in the tens of millions. I have no idea what that infusion of money did for the family that won it, or what ultimately became of them.
I do remember that after the news broke, everyone looked at the kid differently. When a community of people knows you’ve just been given a ton of money, it triggers an unexpected onset of fame. I imagine this can be difficult for a normal person to navigate. Money changes things. And that’s not even to mention the many friends and family of the lucky ones who almost certainly come calling for a hand out. There’s no wonder that the “lottery curse” is a thing, even though it’s probably less of a curse and more like a reasonable outcome to such a shocking and foundation-altering life event.
The film To Leslie, directed by Michael Morris (The Slap) depicts one such scenario. Andrea Riseborough (Mandy, Possessor) stars as the titular Leslie, who we learn in a flashback won the local lottery to the tune of $190,000 some years ago in her West Texas hometown. Now, Leslie—struggling with alcohol addiction—is being evicted from her motel room where she lives and angrily confronting her neighbors over their lack of, or refusal to continue, to help and support her. Before long into the film, Leslie is unhoused and completely alone.
The setup is clear. If Leslie wasn’t quite ever on top of life (who ever is?), her lottery win was her apex, and now we’re thrust into her nadir. It’s a classic rags-to-riches-to can’t-even-afford-rags story, and we’re going to follow Leslie’s journey in her attempt to survive, let alone land on her feet.
Back to that sum of money. The film takes place in modern times, so $190,000 both is and isn’t a lot of money. The characters in To Leslie aren’t destitute, probably more on the lower rungs of the working class, and the film thankfully avoids the type of poverty porn on which too many depictions of this milieu rely. It’s believable that this money would feel life changing for Leslie and would put somewhat of a target on her in this small town; it’s also easy to see how a life of chasing highs could evaporate that money very quickly. That’s what happens to Leslie, and it’s more than just money that she loses.
Two men in Leslie’s life play a key role in the film. Her estranged son James takes her in, reluctantly. James—for reasons we’ll learn later—has moved from his hometown to an unnamed big city, and he’s making ends meet in construction, sharing a small, sparse apartment with a roommate where they keep a weightlifting bench in the kitchen (a nice touch in the film’s production design, which is otherwise just functional). James is portrayed deftly by Owen Teague, who played a similar role in last year’s Montana Story—here’s a regular kid you’d come across in a diner or filling up at the gas station (he’s got that effective everyman aura, a la Jon Bernthal), thrust into the role of caretaker of a parent. James knows his mother’s struggles are real, disruptive, and damaging. Teague does a wonderful job of letting us in on the fact that James has no illusions on how this is going to go, but wants so desperately to be able to help his mother, even if she doesn’t deserve it.
Later, Leslie meets Sweeney, a motel manager played by Marc Maron (Maron, GLOW). It’s more accurate to say that Sweeney tries to save Leslie, offering her room and board at the motel so long as she cleans the rooms and maintains the place—a blind and frankly silly job offer after finding her sleeping in the parking lot (at least something the character recognizes). It’s a pretty extreme act of kindness and compassion by Sweeney, who shares some of the same demons that haunt Leslie but has been able to keep them sufficiently at bay. Where this relationship goes is disappointingly conventional, even if Maron and Riseborough do their best to imbue the pair with heart and chemistry.
There’s also James’s grandmother, portrayed by Alison Janney (I, Tonya, The Help), who comes in and out of the picture as something of a part-time antagonist, alongside her boyfriend Dutch, played by Stephen Root of Barry and The Office, who is never bad but comes off here as the one most looking like they put on a bad Halloween costume before the cameras started rolling.
Morris’s direction throughout is unsparing, utilizing mostly handheld and mid to close-ups to keep us trained on his star, who is basically in every shot of the film. He uses a lot of shallow focus, particularly in a few sequences where conflict is happening behind or far away from Leslie—it gives us the impression that Leslie is someone who avoids things rather than face them head on, who is content to let the consequences of her actions stay removed and opaque. And there are a few moments where the camera fixates on Leslie, with no or little dialog or other people in the frame, for an extended period of time, which work to varying effects. This is a film that feels almost retroactively created as a star vehicle, and Morris knows it.
Here’s where we should probably get into Riseborough, whose portrayal of Leslie is, for lack of a better word, big. And now that Riseborough scored a surprise Oscar nomination for her role (not to mention the kerfuffle around how her nomination came about), this is how a lot of people are going to be introduced to her work. That’s a bit of a shame, because Riseborough is a truly gifted, generally surprising performer. The performance here is somewhat conventional when viewed through an Oscar lens. Riseborough—a UK native—employs a Texan accent, slurs through alcohol-induced benders, goes from high to low to high again rather rapidly. She’s physically vulnerable throughout, It’s the type of role and performance that actors absolutely love, one of those “complete transformations”. There are certainly a lot of emotional beats that Riseborough navigates, and she does so with commitment and vigor.
There’s an interesting symbiosis between the character of Leslie and Riseborough’s nomination here, which many felt came at the expense of two Black actors, Danielle Deadwyler for Till or Viola Davis for The Woman King. It’s not unfair to read To Leslie as unwittingly making a point about the second (and third and fourth and fifth) chances that white people get, the empathy offered by strangers and estranged loved ones alike, the sense of hope that abounds with each new opportunity. It helps to be helped. This is something in short supply for all struggling people, but the existence of the help Leslie continually receives likely illustrates another area where privilege exists and pays off.
The ultimate impact of Riseborough’s performance is somewhat blunted because the character of Lesie and, really, the film as a whole, suffer from just enough of a lack of specificity. The West Texas, working class vibe seems like it would lend itself to the type of uniqueness that would ground a story (and performance) like this, but the entire enterprise feels a bit too performative. Whereas a show like Friday Night Lights felt lived-in, To Leslie comes off as looked-upon.
To Leslie is ultimately a story about redemption and empathy, about a family and community shunning someone who is perceived to have thrown it all away, and that person’s road back being paved mostly by forgiveness. It’s the type of film destined to be described as “heart-wrenching”. Even with the advantage of Riseborough’s full-throated effort, the nuts and bolts just don’t quite fit.
To Leslie is now available on streaming platforms and has been re-released in theaters.