Quick Reviews: 'To Leslie', 'The Whale' | Andrea Riseborough Sobers Up, Brendan Fraser Gets Up
Just a small, itty-bitty movie with the biggest, loveliest of hearts. Sometimes that's all you need. Andrea Riseborough stars as titular Leslie in To Leslie which is a classically trained, quiet drama from director Michael Morris who's making his feature film debut after honing his craft on television previously. Written by Ryan Binaco, their story finds Leslie reconnecting with her son James (Owen Teague) several years after winning $190k in a lottery, spending and drinking it away, abandoning James and ending up homeless. After James discovers that Leslie is still an unreliable alcoholic, he kicks her out and so she finds herself on a bus to a small town where it all started for her. Some time later, she is offered a job and bed at a local motel by helpful manager Sweeney (Marc Maron), offering her a way out of her addiction.
As you'd very much expect, To Leslie survives and dies by the strength of acting displayed on screen. Riseborough obviously has a meaty role here—her character exploring redemption, priorities and self-worth among other things—but the real revelation is how she feeds and feeds off other actors' presence. Her and Teague manage to strip away embarrassment immediately which makes their friction so believable, Stephen Root (as Dutch) and Allison Janney (as Nancy) ground the story in a specific time and place, then finally Maron opens a literal and figurative door for him and Riseborough to reach for vulnerability and openness.
Morris doesn't necessarily inject the film with style or quirks but keeps scenes and dialogue moving swiftly with his editor Chris McCaleb. The writing wobbles a little bit in the last 40 minutes with some unearned saviour arcs and ignoring consequences but actors sell enough of it to leave you with a feeling of having experienced something life-changing with them.
Smileys: Acting, pacing
Frowneys: Some issues with characterisation
There are quite literally thousands of water-based puns and anecdotes to choose from when discussing director Darren Aronofsky's new psychological drama The Whale so how about we dive a little bit deeper (this one feels less risqué than some other ones)? Online college professor Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a morbidly obese man living his life cramped inside his apartment, his health quickly deteriorating. His only connection nowadays is his friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau) before he decides to reconnect with his troubled teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) after he feels like his time will soon be up. In addition to Ellie, Charlie also gets to know a Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) and we slowly find out about Charlie's own issues and his history with religion, family and his partner whom he has lost.
With The Whale, writer Samuel D. Hunter is adapting his own stage play which mainly gives the space for actors to be in the spotlight and that really is what you want to talk about after seeing it. Fraser gives a soaring performance in the lead role, in which he impressively shakes off the prosthetic makeup and forges his character with his eyes and voice, expressing all of Charlie's fear, optimism, self-destruction and acceptance. Chau is equally exposed, balancing frustration with levity in their shared scenes. Sink seems to have a tougher time, often stumbling with overacting—though Aronofsky is the one who isn't able to fit it in this movie—but she does finally find the character in the last 20 minutes.
The main duo's acting as well as Andrew Weisblum surprisingly nimble editing keeps it all together even when Hunter's writing, mostly for Ellie and Thomas, becomes too shouty for these spaces, especially when combined with excessive sound work which revels in Charlie's movements and gluttony with loud mixing of effects and Rob Simonsen's score to the point that it can even be insensitive. If the film wants to increase understanding of those unseen, you can't constantly talk over them or your actors.
Smileys: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, editing
Frowneys: Sound mixing, dialogue