Directed by Michael Morris | Written by Ryan Binaco | 119 min | ▲▲▲△△ | Digital and VOD
This is it: the least likely Oscar-nominated film in years, one that got in under the wire thanks to an unlikely campaign of well-connected friends and social media. The nod went to Andrea Riseborough for Best Actress. She’s the wildly talented British performer known for movies like Shadow Dancer, Oblivion, Mandy, and Luxor, an actor with no star profile, largely unknown to anyone but cinephiles. That’s at least partly due to the fact she’s so transformative from role to role — she has a Daniel Day-Lewis quality to her work.
That’s certainly true again here. The film itself, a melodrama of addiction, may not be the most original to come down the turnpike, but she’s astonishing in it.
Over the opening credits we see a tough-living Texan, Leslie (Riseborough), win $190,000 in the lottery, but when we next see her its years later and she’s getting evicted from the fleabag motel she’s been living in.
She seeks shelter from her son, James (Owen Teague), but when she steals from his roomie to buy booze, James kicks his mom to the curb. It just gets worse for Leslie from there. She alienates her biker friends Dutch and Nancy (Stephen Root and Allison Janney) but ends up meeting a couple of sweet guys who run a motel, Sweeney and Royal (Mark Maron and Andre Royo), who offer her a job and a chance to clean herself up.
Riseborough is a raw nerve throughout, and while she’s not afraid to go big it never feels showy or uncalled for. Leslie’s dysfunction is rooted in alcoholism, past mistakes, and unresolved trauma. Her journey from illness and self-delusion to acknowledgement and forgiveness is never less than intense.
While watching it I was thinking about how movies like The Florida Project and Red Rocket, recent visions of white trash hardscrabble life in the American south, still found moments of grace and humour. A lot less of that here, with the possible exception of what Maron and Royo bring to the story. To Leslie‘s aiming for kitchen-sink realism but at times skates uncomfortably close to poverty porn. It manages to find its notes of authenticity in Riseborough’s performance, and since she’s in almost every scene she carries a lot of that goal — raising the quality of the film around her.
If the finale provides an emotional resolution that feels a bit like wish-fulfillment rather than the film choosing to share the hard work it must have taken to get there, it’s hard to fault a slim ray of hope through the many dark days we’ve seen up to that point.