Available on Hulu and in a limited theatrical engagement following its premiere as part of the Sundance Film Festival in January, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande spins what might easily have been a much darker examination of sexuality, aging, generational/gender-based expectations and the ethics of prostitution into a primarily fluffy corona of pink cotton candy. Many, myself included, will concede that is precisely the intention of screenwriter Katy Brand and director Sophie Hyde. The relationship at the center of the film — which takes place almost entirely within a tastefully-appointed hotel room — is a fantasy with transactional strings attached.
A frustrated widow in her mid-50s, Emma Thompson’s Nancy eventually confesses that the unfulfilling sex she shared with her longtime spouse and father of her two grown children never varied from the same pattern desired by her partner. Not only has the female protagonist never had an orgasm (with or without her husband), she also never ventured beyond the most basic intercourse. Convinced she stands at the precipice of “one last shot,” Nancy engages the services of sex worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a young charmer ready to put his clients at ease.
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Leo may not exactly offer the complete “boyfriend experience,” but he talks the talk and walks the walk. Whether true or not, he insists that his personal enjoyment is genuine. No Viagra or artificial stimulants of any kind are necessary in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, since the male escort so fancies the folks who hire him. Nancy’s skepticism may not be wholly misplaced, but her commitment to the adventure does not get in the way of buying into Leo’s gentle, persistent reassurance and flattery. Later, when inevitable conflict threatens the equilibrium, Nancy calls out Leo’s “sales pitch” even as she schedules more dates with him.
Brand handles each of the hotel encounters with candor when it comes to expressing Nancy’s insecurities and fears surrounding the realities of exploring cravings held for so long in check. Thompson does a lot of heavy lifting in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande when it comes to building a fully-formed character, but McCormack earns his own share of praise for understanding how to convey honesty about his vocation without bursting the bubble necessary for repeat business. Brand avoids several traps — there is no scene where Nancy crosses a line by “falling” for Leo. If anything, her tendencies toward motherly advice irritate her otherwise unflappable escort.
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Despite Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’s overwhelmingly positive reviews, a few critics have challenged the way in which the movie presents Leo as a kind of savior figure for Nancy — a magical “sex saint” or “menopause miracle,” as she puts it. But Hyde’s handling of the material, confirmed by her tone and the setting, should not be condemned for something it is decidedly not. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande includes some dialogue that ponders certain aspects of the sex trade from a moral/philosophical position (colored by Nancy’s own cultural standards as a retired religion educator, to be sure), but it is a long way from the raw and gritty contemplation of trafficking and child exploitation depicted by Josef Kubota Wladyka in Catch the Fair One.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.