‘To Leslie’ Review: Andrea Riseborough in a Raw Drama of Alcoholism

For an actor, there’s an obvious showboat appeal to playing a serious out-of-control drunk. You can fight, you can rage, you can tap your inner party animal, you can rotate through emotions like a human mood ring, you can descend into the kind of degraded dishevelment that’s the lower-depths version of an awards-bait transformation. Yet to give a truly remarkable performance as an alcoholic, you have to make good on the old line about it — that someone who’s drunk is working hard not to act that way. They’re trying to fool the world in the same way they fool themselves.

In “To Leslie,” Andrea Riseborough plays a small-town West Texas single mother who’s a total desperate been-around-the-bend basket case, the kind of alcoholic who has messed up her life so badly that she’s got nothing left. Riseborough’s performance is nothing short of spectacular. She doesn’t compromise, she doesn’t hold back, but she doesn’t endow the character with any sort of fake flamboyance. In each scene, she shows you what Leslie looks like from the outside — the precise level of dissipation, of her sozzled “charm” and flaunted, stunted anger — but she also cues you to what’s happening inside her: the woman the drinking covers up .

The opening credits play over a remarkable little montage of blotchy snapshots that tell the story of Leslie in younger, better days. Then we’re shown a TV news clip of her on the day that she won the Lotto. It’s six years ago, when her son is just 13 and she’s a local heroine who whoops and hollers like a Holly Hunter whippersnapper because she’s getting a check for $190,000 after taxes. That’s not the pasha’s fortune it might once have been, but it’s enough of a cushion for her to build a life on.

Flashing forward to Leslie in her current state, we don’t have to be told what happened to the money. It’s obvious. She drank it away (or pissed it away in some other form while drunk), and now she’s like a pale alien with staring eyes and a ratty tangle of half-dark, half-platinum hair, cadging vodka shots with a pint chaser or getting tossed out of the motel where she’s been living, because none of the monthly tenants will lend her any more cash.

To my mind, you can’t have too many addiction movies — the subject is too central to what the world has become — but maybe, at this point, we’ve all seen one too many classically structured 12-step movies, with their Nearly ritualized drama of getting clean and embracing the rules and confessing the pain and relapsing and falling back down and getting back up and learning how to live again. In “To Leslie,” Riseborough’s Leslie is in the desperate grip of her addiction for much of the film, and even when she backs off from the drinking, her ragtag existence threatens to consume her. This is the drama of a woman in purgatory, and as directed by Michael Morris, from a script by Kyle Binaco, it’s a downbeat diary that hooks us by taking the form of an addict’s picaresque. For two hours, we don’t know where Leslie is going to land next any more than she does, and that lends the film a searing, unvarnished quality.

For most of the movie, there’s no teaspoon of feel-good sugar to make the drama of addictive agony go down. “To Leslie” is a torn-from-the-gut experience — probably the best portrayal of addiction in working-class Middle America since Vera Farmiga played a cocaine-addict superstore cashier in “Down to the Bone.” As celebrated a performance as Robert Duvall gave 40 years ago in “Tender Mercies,” it always bothered me that that Oscar-strewn drama about a recovering alcoholic begins with his bottoming out. Sure, you can say that what comes next — staying sober — is the hard part, but in a way you can’t truly know a drunk until you know him or her drunk. In “To Leslie,” we’re privy to all of Leslie’s lies and manipulations, to the burnt pride she wears like broken armor. When she begins, in small ways, to recover, we’re never far from the abyss that threatens to drag her back.

Homeless, she takes a bus to an unnamed city to stay with her son, James (Owen Teague), who is now a doleful, strapping 19-year-old construction worker with swept-back hair that makes him look like a raw-boned version of the young John Travolta. He makes a place for his wreck of a mother, but with a ground rule: no drinking. Which she agrees to but has no intention of sticking to. James could have added “no stealing,” since she rifles through every drawer and stray jeans pocket in search of cash, ultimately stealing it from his roommate (Catfish Jean). When James learns of all this, and sees the plastic vodka fifths stashed under her mattress, he calls the police to kick her out.

A lesser drama would have been all about how mother and son bond again. In this one, Leslie gets booted back to her hometown, where everybody knows everybody, and she’s an infamous fallen figure — the Lotto winner who blew it all and now haunts the bars in her too-bright red lipstick, coming on to this or that cowboy. Riseborough shows us something remarkable: a grin that’s buried unless Leslie is so blotto that she can feel her sexiness again. But the only reason she’s now coming on to these men is to feel it, and they can see right through her act. When one polite stud turns down her advances on the dance floor, the look of cold silent dawning resignation that crosses her face is devastating. In that moment, we’re seeing a dream die.

But maybe it has to. Redemption, or at least the first stirrings of it, arrives in the form of a job offered to her by a lonely, kindhearted motel manager named Sweeney, played by Marc Maron in a performance that proves he’s a better David Strathairn than David Strathairn. We have to accept the slight contrivance of the fact that he gives her a job as a maid even when she seems barely capable of it. Then again, the idea is that maybe he can see what we can’t (yet): the softer, more competent Leslie who’s there inside. The motel seems like an actual place (the sign outside that says “free wi-fi” is the only indication that the movie is set in the present and not some previous run-down decade), and it’s operated by Sweeney and his partner, Royal, who’s played by Andre Royo as a lived-in acid casualty. The small abandoned ice-cream shack across the street, where Leslie squats for a night or two, is a marvel of bombed-out design: a place that, like Leslie, is hopeless and dilapidated enough to provide the movie with a just-upbeat -enough last chapter.

Along the way, there’s a searing performance by Allison Janney as one-half of the couple who were Leslie’s friends, until Leslie made it impossible; it’s a slight shock to see Janney play sorrowful meanness purged of comedy. And Owen Teague, as James, makes his owlish quietude felt. But the movie belongs to Riseborough, who in the second half comes alive, scene by scene, like a flower slowly uncrumpling. It’s still a scarred and wounded flower, with its glory days behind it. But now, at last, it can breathe, and the audience, in response, lets out a sigh that feels like mercy.

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