“To Leslie” unfolds episodically, and I have to admit to being uncertain about watching another slow burn story of a mother who will inevitably let down her son, played by Owen Teague, who does his best work to date selling the fear that something is going to go wrong when his mother whirlwinds back into his life. However, “To Leslie” isn’t quite that movie. Neither is it a story of a son who saves his mother. It episodically moves through a formative portion of Leslie’s life that isn’t your traditional rock bottom narrative. It’s a cycle of redemptions and failures—moments in which Leslie seems to get back on her feet, only to fall again. It’s a film that really captures the push and pull of addiction, how much people like Leslie want to be good but alcoholism keeps getting in the way.
There’s a refreshing lack of judgment in the way that Morris and Riseborough approach this character, and yet, at least until the arguably too tidy final scenes, they never resort to sentimentalism or melodrama either. It feels not quite like realism—in no small part because familiar faces like Marc Maron (who is phenomenal here too), Andre Royo, Allison Janney, and Stephen Root pop up—but it’s also not the heightened “moral message movie” that this story could have been. While everyone in Leslie’s life laments the choices she’s made, the film maintains empathy for her.
It helps to have a master actor like Riseborough, who gives such a beautiful, unforced performance. There’s a scene where an increasingly drunk Leslie dances in a bar to a great Waylon Jennings track and you keep waiting for the scene to cut, but the camera seems almost mesmerized by the moment—the expression of freedom and sadness in the same motion, fighting like the addiction and hope fight within Leslie.
A different kind of journey takes place through the center of the United States in Morrisa Maltz’s experimentally fascinating “The Unknown Country,” anchored by another stellar turn from the great Lily Gladstone (“Certain Women”). Maltz’s film is an unusual road movie about a woman traveling from the Midwest to the Texas-Mexico border to reunite with her Oglala Lakota family. As her protagonist crosses the gorgeous landscape of the country, shot beautifully by Andrew Hajek, snippets of talk radio and news reports will come through that are clearly designed to place the film in this tumultuous post-Trump era, wherein it feels like we don’t really know each other in the way we thought we did.