Above all else, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022) is a comedic drama about acceptance. Not only is it about accepting others for who they are, but – and most importantly – it’s about accepting oneself. It’s a two-person, one location interaction where our characters meet for one reason and come out learning more than they expected. For a story set in the world of escorts and sex service, it looks to dissolve many of the negative stereotypes and preconceived notions. It seeks to gain a better understanding of those that enter that line of work, as well as those that dabble as customers. That fact that it is also funny and endearing comes as a bonus.
Here is further proof that Emma Thompson is one of our most charming and talented actors working today. She plays Nancy, a middle-aged schoolteacher and widow whose conventional life has left her feeling unfulfilled. To disrupt her everyday routine, Nancy hires Leo (Daryl McCormack), a male sex worker, for a rendezvous at an undisclosed hotel. Thompson brings a nervous energy to Nancy during the initial meet. Having never done such a thing before, Nancy is all apprehension, trying to be polite despite being fully aware of what all this entails. Thompson handles these bits (no pun intended) with well-timed comedy. Her awkward questions about how they should proceed, combined with Leo trying to calm her nerves, make for some lively banter.
However, this isn’t simply about an older woman looking for a good time with a younger man (although that definitely plays a role). The writing (Katy Brand) and direction (Sophie Hyde) digs deeper, examining the characters with empathy. Yes, both Nancy and Leo are presenting a certain version of themselves to one another. As Leo describes, he is creating a fantasy tailor made to Nancy’s interests. But through their dialogue, their walls start to crumble. We learn of Nancy’s past, her relationship with her children, and the imperfections she sees in herself inside and out. In turn, Leo discloses inner truths about himself to Nancy, about his upbringing, and his thoughts about being a sex worker. Try as he might, Leo cannot help but bring some of his real self to the conversation. Thompson and McCormack display palpable chemistry with one another, building a believable dynamic that isn’t just about the hanky panky stuff. In their circle, there are no judgments. There is a lot of discussion about the sex profession, to the point of near speechifying. Luckily, Brand and Hyde keep things from spilling into lecture, anchoring the narrative so that the focus is on the budding connection of these two people.
When it comes to the sex, the film is open and frank. Often, we are raised to believe that sex is something to keep behind closed doors, and that to enjoy physical pleasure is immoral. Here, it’s argued that intimacy – when expressed maturely and safely – is a positive thing. Sometimes it’s better to pay a person for their services than to embarrassingly seek it out on their own. Nancy has trouble grasping this idea at first, asking Leo question after question about how casually he can do such a thing. But soon enough, she comes around. Both Thompson and McCormack should be commended for how willingly they commit to their parts (no pun intended). They’re required to bare all of themselves, emotionally and in the flesh, and they meet those requirements head on. Sexual need does not stop once a person enters their forties, as Nancy so quickly learns.
The editing (Bryan Mason) structures the narrative in cyclical fashion, in which Nancy and Leo meet in the hotel room, stumble through opening pleasantries, share personal information that relaxes the mood, and then engage in the you know what. Each encounter comes with a title card letting us know how many times they have met up. This approach is so repetitive that it plays as unintentionally humorous. Every time Stephen Rennicks’ music kicks in during a monologue, we immediately know that the two are about to get down to business. Luckily, the performances are strong enough to keep things grounded. In fact, any time we move out of the room, the energy noticeably dips.
There is a sequence late in the runtime that nearly throws everything off the rails. A character makes a decision that almost crosses a line – some might argue that it does. Knowing a little bit about Nancy and Leo’s personalities up to this point, this twist comes out of left field. It does not feel like a natural story progression, but a forced plot mechanic to add unnecessary drama. Regardless of Nancy’s naivete and Leo’s seemingly cool demeanor, both are smart enough to know the parameters of their arrangement. This “betrayal” of trust stands in opposition of everything leading up to it. This is one of the few times where the writing and direction stands out badly, creating a moment that simply isn’t believable. It acts as an unstable bridge to get us to the ending, which is too bad.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande contains a strong message and good performances, but the string connecting the second and third acts puts a damper on things. I walked away entertained but with a strange feeling of dissatisfaction – as though the film delivered as advertised but still managed to come up short. It’s progressive and compassionate in its themes, but the overall execution was a little stiff (no pun intended).
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