To Leslie: Deconstructing the Psyche of an Addict 

Make No Mistake: Riseborough is Oscar Worthy in this Sobering Depiction of Addiction, Regret, and Redemption

In recent years (or since the dawn of storytelling, maybe), the theme of substance abuse has been engrained within the fabric of some of cinema’s most notorious and influential characters. Picture Leaving Las Vegas’ Ben Sanderson or Dudley Moore’s eerily convincing drunkard as the titular Arthur. These are figures whose lives are dictated by one thing and one thing only, with nothing and no one else mattering. Their tales are heartbreaking and soul-crushing. Horrid and harrowing. Cutting deep into a crisis that infects most of us, even draining some entirely.

And now we have To Leslie.

For such a small film, To Leslie has left staggering ripples in its wake as its titular lead, Andrea Riseborough, secured a last-minute Oscar nomination last month, aided by a controversial, star-driven grassroots campaign. Her performance took the world by storm, spawning countless glowing reviews from fellow actors and actresses in the industry, some even claiming it to be the best they have ever seen. What was just a little-known indie vehicle transformed overnight into the most hotly discussed film in the industry. And all just due to the likes of Kate Winslett and Edward Norton. But with this acclaim came controversy as many wondered if the campaign behind Riseborough was legitimate or if the performance itself was worthy of a nomination, spawning an internal investigation of the Academy itself.

So, was Riseborough everything people claimed? Oh yes. And so much more.

Loosely based on actual events, To Leslie follows the titular protagonist years after squandering a sizeable lottery winning on booze and drugs, alienating everyone in her life in the process. With nowhere left to go, she reaches out to her estranged son, only to ruin the relationship even further. From there, Leslie jumps from setting to setting, leaving only chaos and destruction in her wake. She finally finds herself working and living in a shady motel off the interstate, given a chance by the kind manager Sweeney (played by a finely-restrained Marc Maron), who sees himself in the damaged soul of Leslie. With Sweeney in her corner, Leslie pushes forward toward some sort of redemption, that is if it’s not already too late.

Riseborough hits every beat, every breath, every tear flawlessly from the first to the last frame, fully embodying Leslie with such stark conviction that the lines of reality begin to blur between fact and fiction. This is a performance that is fully realized by a performer at the top of her game. One that eats up the screen with no scraps left behind. Even at her lowest, Leslie is never portrayed as some sob story, someone you would only hear about through the grapevine. She’s a severe case that feels all too real, making Riseborough’s gripping performance all the more heart-wrenching. Her pain, her aspirations and faults become our own as Riseborough pulls us in with a drinker’s charm only to break our hearts with an addict’s empty promises. By the end, you can’t help but see her for who she is: a woman broken and beaten by an addiction that consumes her.

To Leslie is a film that excels in the minor details. Whether it’s the finely-tuned dialogue or the minute nuances of the performances, it’s a story that’s entirely committed to the subject material, providing a vivid, uncomfortable portrayal of addiction and reparation that’s never melodramatic or pandering. It’s a bleak depiction that strips the disease down to its very core, analyzing every fiber and every nerve. And while there might be hope for Leslie, nothing is ever left tidy or resolved. The damage is settled, and what’s been done has been done. As any addict knows, a day will never pass when that painful craving isn’t hiding in the corner, urging you to take that shot or hit that pipe. And To Leslie knows this, painting a painfully realistic yet hopeful portrait.

Here’s to To Leslie, the little indie that could.

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