This year’s Academy Awards nominations came with a surprise: Andrea Riseborough’s best actress nomination for her role in Michael Morris’ film “To Leslie.” But regardless of the public controversy over her unexpected nomination, Riseborough’s thoughtful meditation on addiction and identity is certainly deserving of the Academy’s recognition.
“To Leslie” — Morris’s feature-length directorial debut — centers on the life of Leslie (Andrea Riseborough), a mother from Texas struggling with alcoholism seven years after a significant lottery win. While the film received positive reviews upon its limited release in October, “To Leslie” earned just over $27,000 at the box office, making it one of the lowest-grossing Oscar-nominated films. The film also flew under most critics’ radars, receiving minimal press attention before Riseborough’s nomination, after which it returned to theaters.
In a grassroots Oscars campaign, A-list actresses including Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston and Kate Winslet widely praised Riseborough’s performance during the Oscars voting period, garnering the film significant media attention. Many were puzzled by Riseborough’s eventual Best Actress nomination because her work in “To Leslie” had previously failed to gain recognition at similar award shows. The nomination prompted accusations that the grassroots campaign violated the guidelines of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which prohibits contacting members of the Academy directly to promote a film during the Oscars voting period. The Academy, after announcing a review of the 2023 nomination process, ultimately ruled that Riseborough’s nomination will not be rescinded.
Though the film is now better known for its controversy, “To Leslie” is worthy of acclaim in its own right.
The film opens with a sequence of fingerprint-smudged photographs filling the screen, giving “To Leslie” an intensely personal feeling from the start. The first scene of the film presents video footage of Leslie after she has won $190,000 from the lottery. Her face is bright and her eyes are hopeful — the money provides her with a means of providing for herself and her young son. Unfortunately for Leslie, the lottery winning proves to be an unexpected curse.
Seven years later, Leslie’s money is spent: she has blown it on funding an alcohol addiction that has driven her far from home and disrupted her relationships. She has lost the trust of her son, ceased contact with her parents and been ostracized by former friends. Riseborough evokes despair with careful attention — she does not make Leslie’s struggle with addiction appear overblown or exaggerated. Beautifully filmed close-up shots observe Leslie with care, creating a sense of unity between her and the viewer.
After returning to her hometown in Texas, Leslie is left to confront the life she left behind. She is antagonized by the people around her, none of whom are able to grasp the severity of her addiction, and forced out of her former friend’s home for drinking. Leslie is left destitute. At her lowest, she sleeps in an abandoned ice cream shop, surrounded by broken glass and a dirtied suitcase holding all of her possessions, a visual that will undoubtedly invoke sympathy in any viewer. The film takes a turn when Leslie is offered a housekeeping job by a kind-hearted motel owner.
In the film’s standout scene, Leslie sits alone in a nearly empty bar, beer in hand, while a country song plays in the background. She has come dangerously close to losing her job at the motel. Her face contorts, confused as to why she lives life the way she does. No words are spoken, yet it is clear that Leslie is at a turning point. Riseborough’s strongest moments of acting are present in these quiet moments of resolve. Long camera shots allow the audience to observe the nuances of Leslie’s profile: her deep-set wrinkles, her frayed hair and her face worn down by years of drinking. From this point on, Leslie sets out on a journey toward sobriety, a path that forces her to question her identity and, in the end, enables her to realize her dreams.
Riseborough’s acting is skillful and nuanced and completely deserving of the attention it has received following her controversial best actress nomination. While overly sentimental at times, “To Leslie” is a compelling portrait of a woman on the margins.