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Fest opener ‘Leo Grande’ smart look at sex — Play It Again, Tim

Written by Tim Miller

Nancy Stokes, a 55-year-old widow and retired teacher, has limited sexual experience.

She’s only been with one man.

She’s only had sex in missionary position.

She’s never had an orgasm.

She decides to expand her horizons. She hires a sex worker, Leo Grande, and meets with him in a hotel room.

Leo is young, confident, in complete control. Nancy is nervous, unsure of herself. She finds herself in a new role: Instead of the teacher, she is now the student.

This is the situation in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” (R, 97 minutes) a thoughtful, rewarding chamber piece starring Emma Thompson as Nancy and Daryl McCormack (“Peaky Blinders”) as Leo. It will screen Wednesday, June 15, as the opening-night feature of the Provincetown International Film Festival and begin two days later exclusively on Hulu.

Cutline: Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack star in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” (Searchlight Pictures)

Nancy and Leo are not the characters’ real names, and that is significant. As Leo explains, the time they spend together – they meet more than once – is intended to fulfill Nancy’s fantasies, with Leo providing the service.

Though they have sex – and talk about it in detail and at length – there is much more to their relationship. Leo serves as a kind of therapist for Nancy, allowing her to talk frankly about her life in ways she’s clearly never shared with anyone before.

Nancy tells Leo about her desires, as expected, but also about her insecurities, her frustrations, her confusion. Leo listens, and encourages her to relax, have fun, enjoy herself without regret or guilt. Though he emphasizes that what they have is a business proposition, that he’s doing a job, he seems really to care about her, about helping her. You get the sense that he’s proud of what he does, that he knows he’s good at it and that he feels he is truly enhancing the lives of his clients.

Director Sophie Hyde (“Animals”) and screenwriter Katy Brand don’t shy away from sexual fulfillment as an end in itself, but they also show the power of intimacy. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Nancy is able to be her “real self” (whatever that means) – or as close to her real self as she can be – with Leo. Because this is something new for her, it’s difficult, and awkward. There isn’t an immediate catharsis (which a lesser film on the subject might depict). Nancy’s evolution is gradual, and genuine, and moving.

There’s more to Leo than he lets on, of course, and he’s purposely less open about himself. Part of the reason is because of professionalism: These sessions are meant for Nancy, not him. Part of his restraint is due to self-preservation; he’s playing a role, and his personal vulnerability doesn’t fit into it. It’s not surprising that, at some point, the facade breaks somewhat and he must face his own issues.

Though there are a few minor characters involved in the story – Isabella Laughland makes the most of her role as an amusing waitress named Becky – most of the movie is focused on Thompson and McCormack, both excellent as they play off each other beautifully.

But the movie is more than a showcase for fine performances. “Leo Grande” brings up the question of whether sex work should be legal (by providing an arguably ideal example of it), but it also transcends that issue to consider the nature of sex, of intimacy, of relationships, of identify, of life. There’s a lot to take in here. In a way, the movie plays the Leo role by inspiring self-reflection, and we’re all Nancy, trying to make sense of it all and maybe grow in the process. ***½ (out of four)

More on the P’town fest

Given the quality of its opening night feature, the Provincetown International Film Festival is starting strong.

The fest runs Wednesday, June 15, through Sunday, June 19, and I plan to attend most days (warning: Sunday is Father’s Day). Among the movies I hope to see: “One Second” (the latest from master director Zhang Yimou); “Both Sides of the Blade” (starring Juliette Binoche, directed by Claire Denis); “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (starring Dakota Johnson and Leslie Mann); “Official Competition” (starring Penelope Cruz and Antonio Banderas); “Emily the Criminal” (starring Aubrey Plaza); “The Good House” (starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline); the animated “Marcel the Shell With Shoes on” and the documentaries “Bad Axe,” “Beba” and “Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel.”

I’d love to catch more, but one of the challenges of film festivals is you sometimes have to make tough choices and skip movies you’d like to see. Among the other offerings are several shorts programs, for instance.

Also, as with every year, awards will be handed out. This year the recipients, scheduled to appear, are director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name,” “A Bigger Splash,” “Suspiria”) and actors Jenny Slate (former “Saturday Night Live” performer, “Obvious Child,” fest offering “Marcel the Shell With Shoes on”) and Bowen Yang (current “SNL” cast member, fest offering “Fire Island”).

While you’re running around trying to see everything you can, don’t forget to enjoy the atmosphere. It’s a great time of the year to visit Provincetown, and some of my favorite memories of past fests involve just walking down Commercial Street, smelling the sea air and taking in the parade of humanity. Life doesn’t get much better.

  • If you want to read about my fest adventures, follow me on Twitter – @TimMillerCritic – and/or check back here on the Cape Cod Wave site.

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Cape Cod Wave Magazine covers the character & culture of Cape Cod. Please see our Longform stories.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He also teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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