Theatrical in its form and ridiculously timely in its message about sexuality and pleasure, Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (2022) unexpectedly rises to become this Sundance edition’s secret must-see gem.
Having two actors do all the heavy lifting in a film often sounds risky. You see, the art of placing two people in a confined space only seems to be largely dependent on their quality of work. Yet in fact, this plays down to what these characters represent; what their conflict touches on, and how well are the turning points defined. In other words, it’s actually the script that determines the success. Therefore I start this review of Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (2022) with Katy Brand’s work as a screenwriter.
Each character – two of them appearing for the vast part of the film – is both brilliantly designed. In the right corner, we have a 55-year old widow, a woman who seems to be past her prime and with little confidence due to her overly prim-and-proper marriage. She craves to taste life before her youthfulness dissolves completely.
Her sparring partner – already waiting in a tidy, emotionless-looking hotel room that is their ring – has the looks of a Greek God sculpture, with hypnotizing eyes that glow with desirable fire and nearly palpable charm. As one may suspect, they meet with a single purpose of a mutual benefit. Leo Grande is a sex worker, meanwhile Nancy Stokes – his customer.
Katy Brand navigates the awkwardness stemming from their first meeting with stellar results. The script frivolously fiddles with both of these characters, looking as their cautious steps only cramp the already hermetic space they share. It’s a fairly simple idea. Leo Grande wants to deliver the best service possible so that he receives the positive review, while Nancy Stokes fights off her reserved nature. As a consequence, Leo probes for any angle that will reduce the distance and discomfort that Nancy clearly experiences. Most of his efforts, however, are in vain.
Brand writes with a knack for comedy, although Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (2022) isn’t a silly gag about a love quest of a shy older person. That is the farthest from the truth. Katy Brand discusses sex positivity in a most empowering manner. She gives credit to Leo and Nancy because she embraces their rights to be who they are – complete opposites of each other. Brand emphasizes that there’s beauty in exploring your body at every age, letting pleasure rain down on you, as well as in helping others find that kind of outlet and comfort. She makes a solid case as an adversary of both these characters, which is a big win for the screenwriter. We grow fond of both of them, and the more they open up, the more sensitive and human the script becomes.
Furthermore, barely a few cinematic exceptions exist where the topic of sex working has not been either fetishized, distorted, or reduced to shock value. Surrounding it is an intercultural stigma, and the stereotyping of people involved in the various professions, ranging from nightclub dancers to escorts, usually portrayed as one of the shades of the criminal underground with neon lights. That’s also the terrain where director Sophie Hyde and writer Katy Brand surpass many other stories told in the past. They simply do not judge. When at some point, Nancy begins to wonder how come such a lovely guy like Leo sells his body – which is an indicator of the bad reputation Nancy associates sex working with – Hyde and Brand make it clear that he enjoys it, and that his profession goes beyond the images conjured up by adult movies.
Now, I cannot express the light-hearted bliss of the script without applauding Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack. Thompson often worked with troubled, withdrawn characters throughout her flowery career, but she’s never been more endearing as she’s in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (2022). Nancy Stokes melts any ice-cold heart, thanks to the unlimited amount of sincerity she exhibits. For Thompson, this also constitutes a courageous performance, in which barriers of self-acceptance had to be tested, if not broken entirely. Her character blossoms in a most soul-stirring manner, as Nancy reinvents not only her sexuality but lets Leo shatter the rock-hard barricade she’s building around herself for years.
Orbiting on the same level, and with the same fierce velocity, is Daryl McCormack. As Leo Grande, the actor embraces the whole “product” that the character sells. McCormack owns every second of screen time, using his whole body to talk about emotions, halt the visible impulses of hesitation, or abrupt falling out of his macho zone. As the story unravels, Leo begins to drop the Le Grande act, and McCormack finds volatility underneath the ridiculous amount of sex appeal and masculinity that he puts forward in the beginning. In his most intimate moments, Leo turns into a broken kid, for which McCormack channels all of his effort to make sure he’s understood and believable.
As a whole experience Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (2022) is often funny, but in a genuine, light-spirited way. No jokes fall flat, nor is there room for American Pie-level jokes. Some of these bits are bitter too – like when Nancy shamefully admits that her son is just plain boring. Nevertheless, Hyde and Brand never settle on mediocrity. That is why a film that sounded like the most forgettable comedy in the Sundance lineup turned out to be one of its biggest surprises.
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