Directed by Michael Morris
Look Around you/look down the bar room/at the faces that you see/are you sure this is where you want to be?
Leslie: “Is that a joke?”
Leslie (Andrea Riseborough) sits alone in a bar, slouched and smoking a limp cigarette. The camera dollies towards her while those lyrics play from a sad country song. She looks up, speaks those words, gets no answer. Then she scoffs as the song continues, each line as heavy-handed as the one before.
It wasn’t until this moment, exactly halfway through the film, that To Leslie felt like it hit its stride. This is the moment at which a character levels out her descent and begins to rise from the ashes. What follows is either a knockoff of or an homage to Tender Mercies (1983), wherein Robert Duvall played a man down on his luck who found purpose at a near constantly vacant roadside motel.
Leslie does the same here, benefitting from the good graces of the two motel employees, Royal (Andre Royo) and Sweeney (Marc Maron). Royal is a free spirit and Sweeney is smitten with Leslie from the moment he sees her, better judgment be damned.
It’s not long after starting work for them that she just about squanders the opportunity, just as she had everything else in her life. Jobs, homes, relationships, dignity, etc.
Sweeney, the most patient person in the world, has even had it with her, but then she finds herself in that dive bar, drinking that beer, listening reluctantly to that sad country song. And the next morning she makes her sobriety a priority.
Were To Leslie to begin with her attempt at sobriety, the film would’ve been a bit frustrating. We feel for Leslie, for her struggle and her determination to do good by herself and those around her. The infuriating part would have been the people around her hurt by her alcoholism. They remain in town, led by Nancy (Allison Janney). She is furious, proud, indignant and self-righteous. If we had only seen that side of her it would play as perhaps a bit cartoonish. Or maybe it would’ve been the right flavor to deepen the mystery of Leslie’s past.
But in this film we spend a full hour up close and personal with Leslie’s addiction. When the movie begins she is being kicked out of a motel and no one around bothers to help her. Then she stays with her son, whom she hasn’t seen in six years. She lies, steals and drinks, and before she knows it she has been handed off like a hot potato to friends Nancy and Dutch (Stephen Root). Their thin patience for her doesn’t last long, and as she continues to drink herself into oblivion, they almost seem to taunt and cheer her on.
And that’s the part of the film most resonated for me, that proud indignation of the people hurt by her actions. The pain she felt passed onto them and hardened into bitterness, resentment and so on. It’s as if they had begun to identify with their repressed pain and cast it right back at her.
But who could blame them? In a climactic monologue that was two parts cathartic and one part a little too heavy-handed (just like that sad country song), Nancy explains her pain. Perhaps more important is that Leslie is there to receive it. The conversation they have feels as out of this world as any Marvel CGI set piece. Sure it’s a little melodramatic, but aren’t our lives full of melodrama? And maybe melodrama left unexamined files division and outrage and so on. Or maybe I’m drinking my own BS. I don’t know.
But the outrage of characters like Nancy and dutch was infuriating to see, even as you could understand why it was there. Hurt people hurt people, that sort of a thing. They were so hurt by Leslie’s behavior over the past however many years that they couldn’t bear to watch her get better.
Anyways this film struck a chord with me, observing how we hurt others, how we find the will to try to do better, and how we live with the consequences of our choices. Leslie had to choose to get better on her own, whether or not the people she loved her would forgive her.
The end of the movie feels a bit rushed, with a sudden time jump that alters the momentum of the story. Across the road from the old motel is a rundown diner. Leslie decides she will clean it up and get it up and running. In a flashback to a time when Leslie won a $190,000 lottery, she tells (or yells to) a tv reporter that she will open up her own diner. The appearance of this rundown diner then appears a little too neat, an obvious vehicle for and symbol of her next chapter in life.
And sure enough, ten months later, she has it up and running.
So maybe it’s a little too “easy,” too neat of a bow on what was otherwise a messy life. Or maybe it’s a message about how your way back is always there, always present in some form or another. It may not be a rundown diner but it’s something that is nevertheless asking for your attention and compassion.