SXSW film review: To Leslie is a redemption story that will make the heart explode

Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie.
Andrea Riseborough in To Leslie. Pic credit: Image courtesy of SXSW

To Leslie sees Andrea Riseborough in another career-defining role as a mother in a West Texas town suffering from alcohol addiction. The film debuted at SXSW 2022 and it is one of the most emotionally authentic portrayals of fighting addiction one might see.

But this is not a harrowing depiction of alcohol abuse– for example, Denzel Washington’s dark portrayal of addiction in Flight. Instead, To Leslie approaches the subject with a gigantic heart and it will leave that heart feeling full.

Should you watch To Leslie at SXSW? Here is our full review of the latest film starring Andrea Riseborough.

To Leslie review

The film centers on Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a single mother who won the Lottery six years prior– $190,000 to be exact– and made the unfortunate mistake of burning her entire fortune on the wrong things.

When we meet Leslie, she is close to rock bottom. She has been kicked out of her motel for not paying rent and barely has a thing to her name except for some photos and a small pink suitcase of clothes.

Homeless and barely sober, she makes her way to live with her son James (Owen Teague). From here, we get a sense of disconnection between them. He wants to give her a chance as any son would but the hopelessness of letting Leslie into his home reads loudly on his face.

But after breaking his ground rules, Leslie ends up kicked out by her own son. And the devastation, heartbreak, and revamped trauma are written all over James.

With no options, she is forced to move back to her small town and live with Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root), the couple who watched over James when Leslie disappeared and became an alcoholic many years ago.

Right out the gate, the amount of resentment Nancy has for Leslie is clear, and Dutch has a “one strike and you are out” policy with Leslie being in their home. And of course, she strikes out.

And from here, the real story arch begins with Leslie as she is left with nothing. A man named Sweeney (Marc Maron) runs a motel and decides to give her a chance. He offers her a minimum wage job and a room in the motel as long as she does her job well.

Andrea Riseborough at  Los Angeles Special Screening Of Annapurna Pictures' 'If Beale Street Could Talk'
Andrea Riseborough at Los Angeles Special Screening Of Annapurna Pictures’ ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ Pic credit: ©

The beautiful aspect of To Leslie is it does not remain hopeless. The film does not leave one feeling kicked in the gut in the same manner as The Wrestler or Leaving Las Vegas.

Once she has the right person saying the right things, it becomes a personal survival story. We then see Leslie trying to push back against that monster that keeps her drowned in the intoxicating liquid. And try as anyone might, family and friends can offer the world in wisdom and opportunity to an addict. But it takes a personal desire to want that to happen– and even then it remains a large hill to climb.

On a personal note, this reviewer had a family member fight the same battle with drinking and went through a similar journey as James. The story beats were so similar that honestly, it was overwhelming to experience To Leslie– and this is stated as a complement to the film.

Leslie’s journey is said to be based on a true story. And quite honestly, it feels so extremely authentic it must be true. Between Riseborough’s brilliant performance, going from someone that frustrates the audience to an endearing and vulnerable underdog, she truly deserves to be in the awards conversation. But because it is March, who knows if that will happen.

Marc Maron is also wonderful in this film. For someone who does so well comedically, Maron almost feels better suited for drama. His presence always feels soothing in roles, even when he plays a grouch like his role in the Netflix series GLOW. And Maron and Riseborough have amazing chemistry together in this film.

While the recovering alcoholic narrative is nothing fresh, To Leslie makes it feel brand new through the redemption of a neglectful mother. And while there are rough depressing moments within the film, the cinematic heart will be at its fullest by the time the credits roll.

Should you watch To Leslie?

To Leslie is a tough watch at first because it deals with family trauma and addiction. But of all the redemption stories about recovering from substance abuse, this one has a giant heart being worn on its sleeve.

Between Andrea Riseborough’s heartbreakingly tender performance and the exceptional cast and direction, To Leslie is one of the best films to come out of SXSW 2022.

Readers who want more SXSW 2022 content can read our reviews of Everything Everywhere All At Once and Spin Me Round.

To Leslie will have one more screening at SXSW 2022 tomorrow at 9 PM CST.

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