For a variety of sociocultural reasons, year over year, the average moviegoer seems to be increasingly oblivious to the films that get nominated for the Academy Awards. There was once ample room in the marketplace for prestige dramas to be both critically celebrated and commercially viable enough to be on the radar of everyday folks who don’t read Variety on the daily. But in the case of the little-seen indie “To Leslie,” even industry insiders and Oscars prognosticators have been scratching their heads as if to say, “…her?”
The low-budget film, starring chameleonic character actress Andrea Riseborough as the titular Leslie, a down-and-out single mother trying to salvage her life after blowing her lottery winnings, grossed less than $25,000 during a short theatrical run this past October. The directorial debut from TV veteran Michael Morris (he’s worked on “Billions,” “Shameless,” and “13 Reasons Why”) is one of those meaty character dramas that only currently exist as underfunded independent productions or glossy throwaway pictures for a digital streamer. It’s competently written, well-performed by a colorful supporting cast (featuring Marc Maron, Andre Royo, and Allison Janney), and features much of the intelligent staging and composition Morris brought to shows like “Better Call Saul.”
It is not, however, a movie anyone predicted would generate Oscar buzz. Outside of an Independent Spirit Award nod and an award from the Chicago Critics Association, none of the usual earmarks of future Oscar success were lining up for the film. That was until Riseborough started a grassroots campaign powered by word of mouth from her peers, including Kate Winslet, Jane Fonda, and Sarah Paulsen. Many fellow actors and actresses took to social media to call attention to Riseborough’s leading performance. Noted lifestyle influencer Gwyneth Paltrow called the film a “masterpiece” and said Riseborough should win “every award there is.”
Normies, who are typically only tangentially aware of awards campaign mechanics, began conspiracy theorizing all over Twitter. Not understanding how much more pernicious the average awards campaign bankrolled by a movie studio with a healthy advertising budget tends to be, their suspicions turned to tough questions. Was this some MLM scheme in the making, like the cinephile equivalent to Forex or Amway? Could this actress most folks have never heard of be this good? Was this movie even real?
It’s entirely possible that you do not know that you already know Andrea Riseborough. This past year she was in two high-profile releases, as Christian Bale’s cruel wife in “Amsterdam” and Mrs. Wormwood in “Matilda The Musical.” Since 2006, she’s been in a diverse array of films in various role types. From a supporting turn in a 2013 Tom Cruise blockbuster (“Oblivion”) to a lead performance in Brandon Cronenberg’s underrated 2020 sci-fi thriller “Possessor,” Riseborough has done it all. But she rarely sounds or looks the same in any two movies. Not because she drastically alters her appearance or has careening weight fluctuations — instead, she has one of those indistinct faces capable of subtle metamorphosis.
Actresses like Cate Blanchett (who shouted Riseborough out at the Critics Choice Awards, where she won for “Tár”) and Tilda Swinton are known for their versatility, but whenever they have a new film out, you know it’s them. Riseborough is one of the hardest-working actresses whose contribution to a film rarely comes into focus until you see her name in the end credits.
So, maybe her peers are getting behind her so vociferously because “To Leslie” is the first time she’s ever been front and center to this degree. The film opens with Leslie celebrating winning $190,000 in the lottery before the camera cruelly cuts to six years into the future, where she is getting kicked out of the hotel room she lives in for not having the rent to stay. What follows is a difficult and grating film about a woman who squandered a lucky opportunity, abandoned her child, and has been ravaged by alcoholism to the point that everyone in her hometown treats her like an archvillain.
Through her tortured relationship with her mother (Janney) and the burgeoning romance with her new employer (Maron), Riseborough plays a wide range of emotions and temperaments, from the extreme shouting people tend to associate with “good acting” to the more subtle and quiet work that allows her performance to linger in the mind long past the end credits. While every over-the-top on-screen argument is clearly auditioning to be the clip they play on Oscar night before cutting to a rapturous clapping audience, they can’t touch the film’s finest sequence.
Around the midway point of the film’s admittedly bloated runtime, Leslie sits at a bar alone, at her rock bottom, while Willie Nelson croons on the jukebox, asking the listeners if they’re sure this is really where they want to be. There’s no dialogue, no scene partners for her to rage against, and no petty distractions to get caught up in. She’s just a woman, alone with herself and her past, realizing, maybe too late, that she doesn’t want it to resemble her future.
It’s truly stirring work. And maybe all those stars lining up to give Riseborough her flowers are actually doing so because they all happen to be repped by the second largest talent agency in LA, and Hollywood is nothing if not an industry built on mutual back-scratching. But perhaps that’s what it takes these days for viewers to take a chance on an earthy little indie-film-that-could, when pictures like this get pushed further and further into the margins every year.
Hollywood is all about theatrics. If it takes a lot of smoke and mirrors to get a good film and a willing audience in the same room together, then so be it.
“To Leslie” is available to rent and purchase on Amazon, iTunes, VUDU, Youtube, et al.