To Leslie review – Andrea Riseborough is great in sad country song of a movie

<span>Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

To Leslie is a sad, sweet country song of a movie, with a steel-guitar twang of love and loss. Screenwriter Ryan Binaco was inspired by his own mother for this film, conjuring her memory in the spirit of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) or maybe Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). Better Call Saul producer Michael Morris makes his feature directing debut. The film is ultimately just a little contrived and its final scene is not entirely plausible, but the drama is always fiercely watchable due to an undoubtedly marvellous performance from Andrea Riseborough – who last week put this little-seen indie picture back into the conversation and made industry headlines with her sensational outsider breakthrough into the Academy Awards best actress nomination list.

Riseborough plays Leslie, a single mum who five years previously won nearly $200,000 on the Texas state lottery, a life-changing event for all the wrong reasons. Leslie squandered every dime on drink and drugs and now she is virtually homeless, a grotesque embarrassment to all the locals who celebrated with Leslie as she held the giant cheque up in front of her neighbourhood bar for the TV news cameras. She is estranged from her parents and her grownup son James (Owen Teague) – whose birthday provided the lucky numbers – and she is still entirely addicted with no intention of joining NA or AA, a subject which is never raised.

After an excruciating attempt to stay with James in the modest apartment he shares with a fellow construction worker, stealing their cash for booze, Leslie comes home to face the people for whom she now symbolises the opposite of luck. This means an ugly, painful confrontation with ex-friends Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root) who are filled with complex rage at her and themselves: they once had to look after the son whom she neglected and abandoned, but they know in their hearts they were happy enough to party with Leslie in the good times, enabling the calamity. But she gets a cleaning job from a kindly motel owner, Sweeney (Marc Maron) and her life might still get turned around.

Andrea Riseborough received her first Academy Award nomination for her role
Andrea Riseborough received her first Academy Award nomination for her role. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Riseborough brilliantly conveys a strange, almost shapeshifting figure: someone who can look almost glamorous as she drinks in bars throughout the day, but then painfully meagre and waiflike, with giant staring eyes, as if still astonished by this punchline to the bad joke of her life, awakening to another hungover collision with reality and disappointment. Most importantly, Riseborough shows that even though all the money is gone, what is left behind is the radioactivity of addiction and a strange residue of celebrity entitlement: she is now a lottery winner without the lottery winnings, a ruined queen, exiled from her rightful realm by fate, defiant in her sense that she is above all these people who now contemptuously believe themselves better than her, but probably wouldn’t have behaved any differently in her position. She didn’t get the better life she was promised. But was her life different? She had already drawn the losing ticket in the lottery of life. Maybe she was always going to be like this.

You might compare To Leslie to Spend Spend Spend (1977), Jack Rosenthal’s TV play about the unhappy British football pools winner Viv Nicholson who lost everything, but this is without the same comedy and sentimentality. Binaco and Morris find something more serious, more compassionate and also more everyday in Leslie’s story, and she is considered eligible for redemption in the classic Hollywood sense. As I say, the ending of this film does not entirely measure up to the standard of tough realism set in the rest of the drama, but what a great performance from Riseborough.