It’s a shame I’m barely seeing this movie, because it definitely would’ve made my list of the best films released last year. Michael Morris’ feature directorial debut was one of the bigger surprises last award season, even managing to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Centered around a single mother in West Texas returning home after squandering her lottery winnings, it’s a phenomenal story of family, community and redemption. Even the trailer manages to capture just how tenderly Morris imbued this movie with an aching humanity that’s guaranteed to stay with you long after credits have rolled. Shot on a microscopic budget during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, viewers will be shocked at how such a small film can have such a big heart.
Like Red Rocket (2021), I think this movie managed to really capture the look of small Texas towns, which makes the fact that it was shot in LA even more impressive. To me, that speaks to the strength of the set design; from homely bars to motels in the middle of nowhere, Morris makes great use of the desert’s expansive landscape to show Leslie’s isolation. This use of setting is strengthened by Cinematographer Larkin Seiple’s wondrous use of light, often washing characters in neon or harsh sunlight, injecting every frame with a strong sense of emotion that helps place us that much farther into the characters’ psychological and emotional landscapes. The use of a handheld camera also adds a kind of subjective feel to the movie, with the frame shaking during tense scenes, as if we were standing right next to Leslie. I also have to comment on the soundtrack; while I think it was a bit heavy-handed in how it used songs to literally tell us how Leslie felt in certain moments, all the original music was pretty fantastic, almost haunting in its straightforward simplicity. All that being said, it’s the script that really shines through in this film.
Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely well-trodden territory. We’ve seen countless movies of less-than-perfect parents on a journey to redeem themselves; but I think what makes To Leslie so effective is the way it never goes for overly-cinematic moments. Instead, it stays in the small, intimate spaces where humanity lies. We see Leslie cleaning the motel she’s working at, we hear the silence of the room when she’s detoxing, etc. These nuggets of the everyday help make the viewing experience wildly personal, as if we’re watching life itself, not a mere film. One can argue that the movie could be more critically engaged with the politics of its topic, but I think it overall handles themes of class and gender very well. It’s a smartly-written film, but it could’ve easily fallen flat without the cast.
Oscar nominations speak for themselves; Andrea Riseborough’s performance as Leslie is one for the ages. From the spot-on accent to the level of range and commitment she brought to each line delivery, this is a real masterclass as far as acting is concerned. Thankfully, this movie has more than just one star to offer; the supporting cast is incredible. Marc Maron’s portrayal of Sweeney is haunted yet still very warm; the chemistry between his character and Leslie really jumped off the screen. Allison Janney’s Nancy is also a great antagonist, refusing to let Leslie move on from her past, yet not giving us a cardboard cutout type of villain.
It’s a magnificent film from start to finish, with a ton of technical finesse used to tell a great story. This is one of those films that takes you on a rollercoaster ride across the whole emotional spectrum; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and at the end you’ll feel more human for watching. To Leslie is now streaming on Netflix, and it’s probably the best movie you can hope to stream this week. If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog in this way including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!