The best narrative feature I’ve seen through this year’s virtual SXSW coverage by some stretch is Michael Morris’ moving “To Leslie,” a personal and heartfelt drama with yet another stellar turn from the always-great Andrea Riseborough. The actress gives one of her career-best performances as Leslie, a West Texas single mother who literally won the lottery. And then blew the money in bad decisions and whiskey bottles. She has estranged everyone in her life, including her son, but Morris avoids turning her arc into miserablism, trusting Riseborough to make this woman fully three-dimensional. She does that and then some, pulling us into her plight in such a way that the actress disappears into the role. It’s one of the best performances you will see this year.
“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.
Can we find what was lost so long ago? Can we return to a country that we feel like we don’t know sometimes? Maltz’s approach at times has a lyrical, almost Malick-like appreciation of the natural world, but her most interesting decision by far is how she will literally branch the film off for what feel like little documentary segments about the people met along the way, all of whom are playing at least variations on themselves.
I wanted more of this—the idea that the unknown aspect of this country is the many stories out there on the road that get drowned out by the discourse—and a little less of what can sometimes feel like shapeless meandering. “The Unknown Country” a bit too often feels pretentiously aware of its experimental nature when its best moments are its least self-conscious. I wanted the score to be turned down several levels, and to just be allowed to live in the moment with these characters more freely, especially Gladstone, who finds a way to ground every project she takes on. Her work along with the almost surreal beauty captured by Hajek and Maltz across the country hold this film together.
There’s also attempts at timeliness in Mo McRae’s thriller/comedy “A Lot of Nothing,” which opens with an intense conversation, filmed in one shot and escalating in frustration. A Black couple named James (Y’lan Noel) and Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) are settling in one night when the news details another story of a kid shot by a trigger-happy cop. They’re shocked when they hear the officer’s name because he lives next door. We have expended so much energy in the last few years wondering what we can do when we see stories of these officer-involved shootings on the news. What if the guy was just a few hundred feet away? James and Vanessa keep amping up the possibilities, cleverly feeding into each other’s anger with sharp dialogue and great performances. And then they get distracted by their own passions. The opening scene is a phenomenal short film of its own, but McRae sadly can't quite get back there again.
The next day, without spoiling how, the neighbor situation gets intense, eventually involving James’ brother Jamal (Shamier Anderson) and very pregnant sister-in-law Candy (Lex Scott Davis). The promise of that opening scene, and even the next half-hour or so of sharp writing, starts to dissipate until the whole thing explodes in a series of revelations and final decisions that just aren’t well-executed, coming off more manipulative than anything else. A concept like this one is really hard to land and McRae almost leans into that by getting more and more melodramatic until he then subverts many of his own themes and characters for the sake of drama. I’m still curious to see what he does next—same goes for the very charismatic Noel and always-good Coleman—but this one just doesn’t add up to enough.