Is ‘To Leslie’ Worth The Fuss Over Andrea Riseborough’s Barely Legal Oscar Campaign?

To Leslie, a film directed by Micheal Morris in his feature debut, is in the news lately these days, mostly because its star, Andrea Riseborough, received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress despite the film earning a little more than $27,000 at the box office (yes, thousand). Some people cried foul (presumably the ones behind competing For Your Considerations campaigns), leading to some hilarious headlines like “The Academy is reportedly looking at whether or not Andrea Riseborough’s grassroots campaign violated Oscar campaign rules.”

Hilarious because a “grassroots” campaign could only be considered beyond the pale in something as thoroughly corrupt and cronyist as the For Your Consideration business. Every year, studios schedule screenings, mail out screeners and swag, and underwrite some of the worst entertainment writers on Earth (I’m speaking mostly, though not exclusively, of the professional awards season prognosticators) with their For Your Consideration ads. Which helps (or maybe it doesn’t! the magic of advertising is that no one really knows or can know) determine which films and actors get nominated for prestigious awards.

Granted, “grassroots” does feel like a bit of stretch here. The campaign was led by Riseborough’s management team and To Leslie director Michael Morris’s wife, actress Mary McCormack, who “emailed and called tons of members of the Academy’s actors branch…” resulting in “dozens of influential stars—Gwyneth, Jen, Howard [Stern], Cate, Amy Adams, Ed Norton, and many, many more—singing her praises and helping win her the coveted nomination.”

Edward Norton wrote that Riseborough’s performance “just knocked me sideways.” Winslet called it “the greatest female performance on-screen I have ever seen in my life.”

Some of the stars even hosted their own screenings and Q&As for the film. Supposedly the furor was over whether the campaign had violated the Academy’s arcane rules about who can email whom (including unwritten rules, such as when composer Bruce Broughton had his nomination rescinded in 2014 after emailing other members of the Academy’s music branch) and how lavish a “screening” reception can be. The latter guidelines include a rule about “providing non-excessive food and beverage at the time and place of a screening,” — a rule the Academy created all the way back in… 2016.

Whether a star-driven FYC campaign is more “grassroots” than a studio marketing budget-driven is a debate for another time, along with the one over which types of influence campaigns are most “fair.” The Academy, in any case, ultimately “declined to take punitive action.”

Keep in mind, all this fuss was over the process of trying to win an Oscar — an award originally created Louis B. Mayer as a union-busting scheme. “I found that the best way to handle [moviemakers] was to hang medals all over them… If I got them cups and awards they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created,” goes Mayer’s now-infamous quote.

Basically, the To Leslie furor consisted of cronies calling other cronies cronyist over their methods of campaigning for a cronyist, anti-union award. If you could keep track of enough of the esoteric details, it was pretty funny.

These days, To Leslie is available to rent on demand, where we can all judge for ourselves. So the question becomes: is it any good?

First and foremost, To Leslie strikes me as an extremely movie kind of movie, the kind of movie that used to exist mostly to win acting awards. Michael Morris is a theater director, and most of To Leslie‘s plot seems like an elaborate, largely transparent ruse to give its actors license to deliver rather “big” acting performances. It’s not shocking that a bunch of actors would love this movie, and this performance.

Riseborough plays Leslie, who we see in some stock local news footage at the beginning winning $190,000 (what a weird amount!) in the lottery. “Everyone’s drinks are on me!” Leslie shrieks into the microphone.

Even in this framing device scene set in the presumably innocent past, Leslie seems like a bit much. Her shy young son seems embarrassed of her. Cut to six or ten years later (I can’t remember the exact number) and Leslie is even more than that. She’s in the midst of getting booted from her fleabag motel, alternately pleading and castigating everyone around her for not helping her. She’s out on the street and ultimately shows up to her now-grown son’s (Owen Teague) shared apartment in “the city” (left unnamed, but presumably Austin since we later find out we’re in Texas).

With the whole thing shot on grainy, gritty, seventies realism-style film stock (similar in some ways to Funny Pages, shot on Super 16mm) Leslie seems humble and apologetic at first. But before long she’s stealing money to buy the booze she promised not to and going on benders. When her son inevitably kicks her out, she washes up on the doorstep of Dutch and Nancy (unspecified family or acquaintances played by Stephen Root and Allison Janney) where the same basic cycle begins again. Basically, Leslie is an ungrateful, untrustworthy, irredeemable pain in the ass, who becomes the problem of anyone who takes pity on her until they realize she’s not worth the trouble.

This is the kind of movie that feels “old fashioned,” partly because indie actor’s showcases rarely get seen anymore (see: $27k box office) and partly because, in the age of streaming, where indie actor’s showcases mostly end up nowadays, To Leslie all but dares you to switch channels. It feels distinctly designed for the theater audiences, where the barrier to ducking out early is higher than it is for streaming. To Leslie assumes the audience will stay for the whole thing, which is to say that it makes you wonder why anyone would care about this awful woman for a good 45 minutes of screen time.

Clearly, it’s setting up a character arc, just going about it deliberately. Eventually, Leslie meets a hotel manager played by Marc Maron and she turns it all around just in time for a crowd-pleasing, legitimately heartwarming ending.

As someone who watches movies for a living, Maron’s performance was probably a bigger surprise than Riseborough’s. I never expected that the guy I knew mostly as the origin of “who’re your guys” jokes and podcasts beginning with pathos-filled, 10-minute soliloquies would someday make me happy every time he shows up in a new movie or show, but here we are. Maron is… well, he’s great. He brings a hang-dog, patient dad energy to the role that it’s hard not to be charmed by. Andre Royo, aka Bubbles from The Wire, is an equally welcome sight in another supporting role.

Riseborough is great too, because she mostly always is. She plays a character who’s had her emotional restrictor plate removed, the kind of role all actors dream of, and nails it in a way they all dream of doing. The only reason she hasn’t been nominated for an award before now is that she tends to show up unrecognizable in movies for film nerds. When your aunt asks “Andrea Riseborough, what’s she been in?” you end up having to fumble for answers like “…Possessor? Nocturnal Animals? Mandy?

One reason Riseborough’s performance may stand out in To Leslie is that the script (Ryan Binaco) barely justifies her character transitions. She’s a self-destructive, self-hating alcoholic because… she won the lottery and it didn’t turn out the way she planned? Okay, sure. She decides to stop being that because… well, who can say, really. Ultimately she’s good enough that you stop asking why and just enjoy the process. And what’s a clearer mark of a great performance than that?

Actors turning out to make To Leslie an Oscar contender feels partly like a nostalgia play. The current movie production, and especially distribution, environment doesn’t leave much room for middling movies with standout performances anymore. These are the kinds of movies that used to dominate awards season, and now they mostly end up forgotten. A movie with brilliant turns by Riseborough, Maron, and fellow always-greats Stephen Root and Allison Janney deserves better than that. If pretending the movie they’re in is better than it actually is can get more people to see it… why not?

Of course actors want to believe that a great effort in a movie that isn’t a smash hit can still be recognized. Anyone tangentially involved in the movie business wants to believe that. As a movie, To Leslie isn’t a thrill-a-minute ride nor will it change your conception of what movies can be, but it can transport you back to 1997 when a movie like this still could make someone’s career.

‘To Leslie’ is available on demand now. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.