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Dan Webster reviews " To Leslie"

You’d think it would be easy to play an alcoholic. It’s not as if actors haven’t won Academy Awards doing so. Just ask Ray Milland, Elizabeth Taylor or even Nicolas Cage.

But to do so authentically, and yet to make the character – even when displaying the very worst kinds of behavior – seem even slightly sympathetic, is no mean feat. It, though, is exactly what the English actress Andrea Riseborough does while playing the title character in the film “To Leslie.”

Riseborough’s Leslie hails from a small town in West Texas. The kind of working-class, trailer-park character that the movies love to feature, she fits every stereotype imaginable. She drinks (shots and beer, of course), she’s a neglectful mother and she likes to raise hell.

Which is exactly what she does when, in a burst of good fortune she hits the jackpot, winning a $190,000 lottery prize. We learn this almost from the beginning. Director Michael Morris transitions from Leslie’s celebrating to her being evicted from a residential motel, which sets the tone for what’s to come.

Even in that celebration, Morris – who’s worked mainly in television on such shows as “House of Cards,” “Shameless” and “Better Call Saul” – foreshadows that all is not right by keying on Leslie’s son James. As much as she is ecstatic, he remains glum – as if suspecting how things will go.

And, of course, he’s right. Six years later, after having been bounced from the motel, Leslie seeks out James (now played by Owen Teague) who, we discover, she’d abandoned shortly after the lottery win when he was just 13. James greets her cautiously, hoping for the best – which, of course, won’t – can’t – happen. Leslie needs to drink the way the rest of us need to breathe.

Which is how, yet again, she breaks a promise to James, causing him to send her packing, back to the same town she’d left that half-dozen years before. What’s worse, she’s taken in by two former friends – Dutch and Nancy (played respectively by Stephen Root and Allison Janney) – who indulge her only because they feel sorry for James.

And yet Leslie has even further to fall. It’s not long before she goes on another bender, which pushes Nancy past the breaking point. And Leslie ends up sleeping in an abandoned ice cream parlor next to a road-side motel.

Which is where the movie goes slightly awry. Because that motel, which is owned by an acidhead named Royal (played by Andre Royo), is managed by a decent guy named Sweeney (played by Marc Maron). And he, for reasons that never do become clear, ends up offering Leslie a job. That he would do so, to anyone so obviously bedraggled, unshowered and desperate, is hard to get over. Hand her a 20 and wish her good luck, maybe. But a job?

Whatever, Leslie does her best even then to screw things up. Eventually, though, she does reach a point of reckoning – and in those moments, which occur at least twice, Morris’ camera dwells on Riseborough’s face, allowing her to reveal the whole of Leslie’s pained existence, the source of which is never explained but doesn’t need to be. It’s all there for us to plainly see.

Many movies about drunks have downbeat endings. Consider what happens to Cage’s character in “Leaving Las Vegas,” for example. “To Leslie” offers at least a beacon of hope, though as anyone familiar with the disease of alcoholism knows that such hope comes doled out day by single day.

The last things to add about the film are that Morris manages to capture the claustrophobia of small-town life well enough, revealing Leslie’s story fairly matter-of-factly with only the occasional flashback. And the acting is uniformly first-rate, from Janney’s Nancy to Teague’s James. But Riseborough, who’s been a working actress for nearly two decades, is a sensation. That she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for a performance that hardly anyone saw has caused controversy, sure.

But the movie is screening now through any number of streaming services. And if you see it, while you may never fully understand Sweeney’s attraction to Leslie, you should easily be able to understand why the Motion Picture Academy admires Riseborough.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.

Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for