‘To Leslie’ Ending, Explained: Is Leslie Able To Control Her Urges? What Happens To James?


The title of the drama film “To Leslie” sounds like an ode to its protagonist, but this individual is not someone heroic or even worth celebrating. Instead, Leslie is a woman broken by her alcoholism and lack of seriousness in life. The film picks her up after she has burnt through all her money and personal relationships and follows as Leslie struggles with her realizations. Brilliantly portrayed by Andrea Riseborough, the character of Leslie is the star of this rather poignant film. Even though the latter half and ending might be deemed too positive without enough plausibility, “To Leslie” deserves a watch without a doubt.

Spoilers Ahead

‘To Leslie’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?

The opening credits of the film, which are the very first visuals, are accompanied by photographs that sum up Leslie’s life so far. Having childhood and teen years that were not unusual in any way, the girl always seemed to have been jolly and cheerful. Trouble began after she was an adult and was unable to keep the good times in check. Physical marks and spots around her eyes suggest she did not have the healthiest life, despite already being a mother by now. Her struggles are gradually revealed to have been with alcohol, as the woman kept drinking and partying without any limit. The best turning moment in Leslie’s life came when she won her town’s biggest lottery—a prize worth $190,000. However, just six years later, Leslie has lost all this money due to her lifestyle choices and is now living life destitute. She is turned away from a residential motel that she had been staying in for a few months, for she has not paid the due rent. With no place to stay and no money either, Leslie survives a day or two by allowing herself to get picked up by random men at bars but then ends up on the streets with a bruised eye as well. The only family that she feels would be willing to see her in such a moment is actually her young son, James. It is evident that James and Leslie have not been in touch for a long time due to the latter’s disinterest, and it has been six years since they met, as Leslie claims. The woman starts to live with her son in his rented, shared apartment, with James only asking two things of his mother. First, Leslie should figure out her own life and not forever stay put at his flat, and second, she should not drink while being there. Leslie promises to fulfill both of these requests, but her struggles are way beyond her control now. She cannot stay away from drinking for long and ends up stealing money from her son’s roommate; she also seems to sleep around with the neighbors to earn some more. Sensing trouble that he had feared, James turns his mother into the police and gets her removed from his apartment. Leslie now has no other option but to return to her native rural town, the place she left around six years ago.

How Does Sweeney Help Leslie Sort Her Life Into Order?

The first few minutes of “To Leslie” present the protagonist in such a manner that it is indeed hard to sympathize with her beyond a point. Even though she is a broken and troubled character, her impulsive decisions and lack of control over them genuinely put her in a bad light. Instead, we are more bound to sympathize with James, who has managed to stay away from substance abuse after having seen his mother fall apart due to it and is busy trying to build a decent life of his own. It is only with time that Leslie’s character develops the layers that they do and become more affecting to the viewers. After returning to her hometown, it is clear that Leslie is perceived as a wastrel and loser by everyone, and she is more the brunt of jokes for everyone than any serious concern. The woman first stays put at the house of Nancy and Dutch, two individuals who were very close to her at one point in her life. But Nancy, who is either an old close friend of Leslie or might be related to her, does not want to be associated with her anymore. She does not want Leslie to stay at her house and only waits for an opportunity to throw her out. In this house, too, Leslie is told not to drink, as is perhaps obvious to say to an alcoholic, but Leslie breaks the rule here as well. She is once again homeless and without any shelter, with her only company being her pink suitcase containing personal belongings. She has to spend the night in the sheltered compound of a motel but is driven away the next morning by the owner. This owner, named Sweeney, then learns about Leslie from his associate. After all, she is known in town as the woman who won the grand lottery prize and then blew it all away on drugs, alcohol, and a spendthrift lifestyle. This seems to strike a chord in Sweeney somewhere, and he offers her a job at the motel, cleaning the rooms and doing the laundry, in exchange for a small wage and a place to stay. Although surprised and elated by this offer, Leslie is hardly serious about her new job once she starts. She keeps waking up late and slacking in every way possible while spending away all the wage money on drinking.

One night, after drinking heavily at the local bar, Leslie walks into a private property that was once her house. Despite a family living there, she wanders into the house and tearfully remembers the time she would spend there with young James. The home’s new owner respectfully asks her to leave, but when she does not follow, the man has to call up Sweeney and ask him to take her away. Sweeney now decides to fire Leslie, for he realizes that he cannot help her anymore. But it is Leslie who now promises to maintain sobriety and start taking her life and job seriously.

There is always a sense of helplessness in Leslie, as she has to drift from one place to another, with her life remaining as miserable as ever. The woman has been foolish in her past and is perhaps so even now, but she has also probably not had anyone give her a serious chance. From her later confrontation with Nancy, it is clear that Leslie never received any advice or motivation from any of her townsfolk, friends, or neighbors about how to live a healthy life. Instead, she was always morally judged, looked down upon, and then ridiculed once she lost all her money. Despite all her foolishness and lack of good sense, Leslie now also has enough regrets for the mess that her life is in. She has nobody to turn to in her time of need and disappoints even the only one she has. Her relationship with her parents is as bad as that with Nancy and Dutch. Her decision to return to her hometown but not to her parents’ place is perhaps because she at least wants her freedom intact. Leslie struggles with her having to wash away all self-respect in order to keep up with her addictions, and in the quieter moments, she sits sadly with this realization.

There are multiple instances of her trying to impress men in the most coarse manner at the bars to ensure that she would get either money or booze from there. There is no respect in such behavior, only extreme desperation, and a man even tries to force himself on Leslie at one point. But the biggest regret she seems to have, and the one that turns her character around for the better is her disappointing motherhood. It is revealed towards the end of the film that Leslie had actually abandoned young James when she ran out of money and had gone away to the city. Like someone truly out of her wits due to alcohol and drugs, she had given up all responsibility of her son and kept no contact with him. It is not that she had gone in search of a job or a better life for James, for she never returned to him, who had to put up with Nancy. Leslie admits that she had done so because she felt helpless and that it was extremely wrong of her to do so, and she finally puts this realization to use. Just like her mental struggles to live with her failed life, she now has physical sufferings due to alcohol withdrawal. Nonetheless, Leslie strives through it all with the hope of new beginnings and perhaps with a desire to be a better human being in James’ eyes.

Probably because no one till now had given her a chance in any serious form, Leslie very evidently needs a push or a human touch to affect her and make her change. The kind and accepting Sweeney provides this push for her, as he gives her numerous chances to better her life. Sweeney’s own backstory, as he tells Leslie later on, explains that he had also known someone suffering from alcoholism in his life before. His ex-wife used to have drinking sprees and a total lack of control and accountability thereafter, and it was his inability to live with this that made them get separated. It can be that Sweeney, too, now has his own realizations about how he could have been more understanding of the woman than being hard on her at the moment. So, Leslie is almost like a second chance to him, and he takes this chance in the most sensitive and appreciative way. He is always mindful of his expressions and behavior while with Leslie, and ultimately, it is his belief in her that gives her the healthy space to build her life.

Sweeney is really an exception to the kind of people that Leslie has encountered in life so far, as he always tries his best to keep his own disappointments as far away from her as possible. On the other hand, her once closest friend Nancy is still bitter with her, and she has her reasons too. Nancy had to live through the heartbreaking experience of telling a young boy that his mother had not abandoned him and that she would return to him, despite knowing that Leslie’s return was unlikely. For this, she explains, she can never forgive Leslie and see her in the same light as she used to during their younger days. Leslie has also not had much luck, or perhaps time, in romantic relationships either. Although she had been with James’ father for some time, the identity or absence of this man is never an important concern for the film, as even in the opening images of the photographs, his face can hardly be seen anywhere. James obviously wants to help his mother out in her time of need, but the sad reality is that he also knows how uncontrollable she is when inebriated. But James at least does not want to wash off all memories of Leslie like the others, as is evident through the guitar he keeps in the corner of his room. Although he does not have the time to play the guitar, he has kept it only because it was a gift from his mother after she won the lottery.

‘To Leslie’ Ending Explained: What Happens When Leslie And James Meet Again?

“To Leslie” ends with another meeting of Leslie and her son, but this time the circumstances are quite different. After an argument with Sweeney, in which he spills the hard truth that only Leslie is to blame for her current situation in life, she leaves the motel. While it seems like Leslie has broken her sobriety and is about to start drinking again, she controls herself at the right moment. A vacant and abandoned ice cream shop near the motel had earlier been her shelter on homeless nights too, and the same place now gives Leslie new hope for life. She decides to turn the place into a diner and start her own business with the help of Sweeney. At this time, the man professes his love for her, and ten months later, Leslie starts her own diner. Excited to serve customers, she is let down to see that nobody arrives and realizes that perhaps Nancy has turned away all the townsfolk from her. But it is Nancy herself who arrives late in the evening, and Leslie confronts her. However, instead of being mean as before, Nancy now calmly explains her reason for anger against Leslie and then brings James into the shop. Since the woman had raised James for a few years after Leslie had left, she had possibly stayed in touch with him and had now contacted him to bring him to the town.

“To Leslie” ends on the sweetest note possible, even if it is probably not the most realistic resolution. Nancy actually realizes Leslie’s effort in trying to better her life and build something good of her own, and she appreciates this effort. This is why she brings James to his mother on the opening of this new chapter in her life, as Nancy knew this was what Leslie would want the most. At the end of it all, it is definitely Leslie’s triumph, for she manages to redeem herself in everyone’s eyes and inspires for a better future. At the newly opened diner, Sweeney and James make acquaintance with each other before Sweeney serves him the special dish of the day. James tells her mother how great her new business and life look, and Leslie cannot hold herself back any longer. With tears in her eyes and a face full of regret and apology, she hugs her son, and “To Leslie” cuts to its end.

“To Leslie” is a 2022 Biopic Drama film directed by Michael Morris.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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