Yet another film from this year’s Sundance Film Festival’s crop that slipped by me. “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is a pandemic era feature from director Sophie Hyde that earned a lot of attention following its premier in January. The film explores themes of self-discovery and fulfillment in a way that is sure to resonate with most women. At the same time, it does so through a means that is sure to speak to some far more than others.
Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack lead this intimate two-hander that mostly sustains its interest throughout its four-act structure. In this obvious COVID-era production, the two stars are handed a challenging task and manage it admirably. Meanwhile screenwriter Katy Brand’s story of a widowed former schoolteacher and a considerably younger sex worker mines a surprising amount of depth and personal detail from her two characters. Yet as a movie, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” starts strong, adds some compelling layers, but comes unglued in an unfortunate final act that never quite rings true.
The movie opens with a woman (Thompson) entering a hotel room. Her name is Nancy and she looks to be in her mid-sixties (the movie never tells us). She’s clearly anxious and after changing shoes nervously begins checking out the place. We then shift to a coffee shop where a young man named Leo (McCormack), roughly in his late twenties, checks his phone and the heads outside. He has appointment with a new client at a nearby hotel. Of course, that client is Nancy.
Upon Leo’s arrival to Nancy’s hotel room, we learn he is sex worker and Nancy has prepaid for his “services”. The hunky Leo oozes self-confidence yet he’s gentle and almost saintly through Hyde’s lens. He says all the right words, has endless patience, and often speaks like he’s leading a therapy session. Nancy on the other hand is quickly overcome by second thoughts. Trepidation sets in as she wrestles with feelings of shame, embarrassment, and insecurity. Soon she’s scrambling for any excuse she can find to not to go through with it.
Leo pours a couple of glasses of champagne to help break the ice and lighten the mood. And so begins this 97-minute movie that takes place almost entirely in this single hotel room. While sex necessitates a portion of the story’s preoccupation, it’s not as salacious as the premise may sound. In fact, the most seductive element of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is the honesty it brings to Nancy and Leo in the first three acts. It isn’t until the clunky final chapter that a frustrating sense of artificiality creeps in. And it’s here that the movie ends with an awkward sex montage which feels more like the script fulfilling a self-imposed expectation than a true ‘coming into her own’ moment for Nancy.
Far more compelling is watching Thompson and McCormack unpack their characters through their many dialogue-rich conversations. The performances are fantastic, especially from Thompson who’s a conduit for the audience and the conscience-driven questions many may have (even though the film’s positions are never in doubt). But when she really starts peeling back Nancy’s layers, we see a woman woefully uncomfortable in her own skin and full of regrets for the life she never lived. But we also see touches of haughtiness and condescension in how she talks about her two adult kids (one is “too boring”, the other has too much fun) or the kids she once taught in school.
Despite the solid performances, many moments of heartfelt sincerity, and its impressive juggling of tenderness and the risqué, “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” still evolves into something pretty predictable. And there’s also the preposterous nature of the story. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, but I can’t imagine this is how Leo’s particular pay-for-service business generally works. But worst of all is the slapdash fourth chapter that nearly undoes the film’s more encouraging message of finding contentment and discovering self-confidence. “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is now streaming on Hulu.