×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Little Woods’

Tessa Thompson outshines co-star Lily James in Nia DaCosta’s empathetic debut, which dramatizes the challenges facing two sisters in North Dakota.

Director:
Nia DaCosta
With:
Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale
Release Date:
Apr 19, 2019

Rated R  1 hour 43 minutes

Official Site: https://www.littlewoodsmovie.com/

So much of the recent political debate has focused on the United States’ southern border, and on the threat of illegal drugs and criminals filtering up through Mexico. But what of the north, where Americans traffic opiates and prescription pills from Canada across a border that runs nearly three times as long? “Little Woods” opens and closes with shots that straddle this imaginary line, filmed by a cameraman with one foot in North Dakota and the other in Canada — an abstract but effective reminder that all this talk of walls distracts from problems facing another portion of the population altogether.

With “Little Woods,” writer-director Nia DaCosta concentrates many of these concerns into the dour daily struggles of two young women, self-reliant Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and her more trouble-prone half-sister Deb (Lily James), who stand to lose the house where Ollie nursed their mother through what appears to have been a tough final chapter. Even now, Ollie sleeps on the floor of her mother’s bedroom, surrounded by such depressing reminders as her abandoned oxygen tank and wheelchair.

Deb wants nothing to do with the house; she’s a single mom who prefers to live in a camper illegally parked in a superstore parking lot. To complicate matters, Deb is pregnant, and her hotheaded husband (James Badge Dale) is not the father. She’s stunned to learn that it will cost $8,000 to $9,000 to have the baby. Or she could cross the border, assume a false identity, and get the abortion for free in Canada.

Nothing — not one detail — in DaCosta’s screenplay feels invented or contrived, although that’s perhaps more of a weakness than a strength, since “Little Woods” presents a grimly plausible picture of lower-middle-class inertia somewhat lacking in imagination, where the challenges feel all too familiar, and none too exciting. For Thompson, the charismatic up-and-comer from such hyper-energetic films as “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Sorry to Bother You,” the role offers a chance to explore a quieter, more nuanced style of performance. James, on the other hand, projects a frustrating blankness, and maybe wasn’t the right choice for her part. Instead of feeling balanced between the two characters, the film favors Ollie, whereas Deb represents DaCosta’s larger statement about reproductive rights.

Superficially at least, “Little Woods” reminds of such rural indies as “Frozen River” and “Winter’s Bone,” minus the tried-and-true thriller mechanisms those films used to plunge audiences into the gritty day-to-day reality of desperate women caught up in a constant fight to keep their homes from being snatched out from under them by unforgiving lenders and sinister authorities. Those same conditions are at play here, revealed in stark contrast with the financial success that industrial fracking has brought to Little Woods (a fictional town inspired by Williston, N.D.). Still, for some reason, the scene in which Ollie sweet-talks an ambivalent banker into giving her a week to raise $2,800 to save the house — a sum that may as well be $1 million to someone in her position — fails to set a ticking clock in motion.

Lately, Ollie has been making an honest living selling coffee and sandwiches, along with laundry services, to the rugged guys down at a local work site. They look at her with a kind of forlorn desperation, remembering the days when she also peddled painkillers and other prescription drugs on the sly. From the opening scene, we understand that Ollie was busted smuggling drugs across the Canadian border; we also know that she hid a stockpile of pills somewhere in the woods, so it’s no surprise — more of a disappointment, really — that she goes back to retrieve them as a shortcut to earning the money the bank requires.

Ollie seems so much smarter and more capable than this, and it’s frustrating to watch her excusing herself from a promising job interview to deal with the local drug dealer (Luke Kirby), who wants his cut. Nearly all the men are horrible human beings in “Little Woods,” posing either a physical or a sexual danger to its half-sister heroes, with one exception: Ollie receives encouragement from her sympathetic probation officer (Lance Reddick), but even then, he wields the power to send her to prison. That means risking a lot to help her sister arrange an abortion across the border.

To the extent that Ollie and Deb have any agency whatsoever in their lives, audiences can sense how tenuous that position is in scene after scene where they find themselves at the mercy of others — as when Ollie’s probation officer does a surprise inspection of her home (where her pills are hidden in a hall closet), or cornered by a police officer in a Canadian parking lot, while the two shady guys Deb paid to make a fake ID put uncomfortable pressure on her to give them something more for their trouble. Confrontations like these offer dramatic pulsations to a tale that otherwise listlessly tilts toward the tragic, if only because that’s so often how “one last score” stories tend to go.

But there’s at least one more key aspect of “Little Woods” that sets it apart: Whereas DaCosta’s dialogue strains to find poetry amid such scrappy conditions (an exchange about Ollie’s use of the word “hopefully” sounds like something conceived during a playwrights’ workshop), she intuitively reveals a deeper dimension to both of her heroines by taking an extra beat at the beginning or end of scenes to observe their faces when no one else is watching. Shortly after introducing Deb, DaCosta spends a long, silent moment with this weary young woman, seated in her trailer gazing at the positive pregnancy test. On multiple occasions, DaCosta lingers on Ollie by herself: driving to work, smoking alone (a habit she’d previously quit), or sitting at the dinner table while her sister speaks to her son off-screen.

The acting and direction may be more or less sufficient in other scenes — adequate to hold our interest, on par with so many other indies — but both resonate during these quiet interludes, which serve to underscore the impression that Ollie and Deb are constantly overwhelmed and exhausted, doing everything they can to keep it together. “Little Woods” doesn’t condone their choices, but it recognizes that their behavior results from a complicated set of circumstances — that they cross the border out of what they both perceive as a kind of necessity — and responds to that situation with empathy rather than judgment.

Film Review: 'Little Woods'

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (competing), April 21, 2018. (Also in Los Angeles Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production:

A Neon release of a Tango Entertainment presentation, in association with Water's End Prods., Automatik Entertainment, Stoneboies Entertainment, of an Extra A, Gabrielle Nadig production. Producers: Rachael Fung, Gabrielle Nadig, Tim Headington. Executive producers: Lia Burman, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Fred Berger, Tom Dolby, Susanne Filkins, Abdi Nazemian, David S. Stone, David Boies III, John Boccardo, Derek Esplin, Tessa Thompson. Co-producers: Stephanie DeVaan, Ethan C. Yake, Patty Quillin, Theresa Page, Laura Lewis.

Crew: Director, writer: Nia DaCosta. Camera (color, widescreen): Matt Mitchell. Editor: Catrin Hedström. Music: Brian McOmber, Malcolm Parson. Music supervisor: Meghan Currier.

With: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick, Charlie Ray Reid, Brandon Potter, Jeremy St. James, Ryan Downs Hayden, Elizabeth Maxwell, Luci Christian, Morgana Shaw, Jason Newman.

More Film

  • AMC theater

    AMC Stubs A-List Becomes No. 1 Movie Subscription Service

    AMC Theatres’ Stubs A-List program, which allows customers to see three movies a week for $19.95 a month, has hit 800,000 subscribers. That figure is well ahead of the original projection, announced last June, for 500,000 subscribers by the end of its first year. According to AMC, the program is now the No. 1 moviegoing [...]

  • Millie Bobby Brown on Her Feature

    Millie Bobby Brown Calls Her Film Debut in 'Godzilla' 'Kind of Unreal'

    Millie Bobby Brown is no stranger to stardom thanks to “Stranger Things,” but she still can’t believe she’s making her feature film debut in the monster reboot “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” “It’s kind of unreal,” Brown told Variety at the premiere. “I’m like, ‘What is happening right now?’ It’s so bizarre and unreal, and [...]

  • Dakota Johnson Tracee Ellis Ross

    Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross Co-Starring in Comedy 'Covers'

    Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross will co-star in “Covers,” a comedy set in the music scene in Hollywood. “Late Night” director Nisha Ganatra is helming from a screenplay by Flora Greeson. Focus Features is partnering with Working Title Films on the movie. Working Title’s Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner will produce with Alexandra Loewy [...]

  • Sony Interactive Launches Film, TV Studio

    Sony Interactive Launches Film, TV Studio to Adapt Video Game Projects

    Sony Interactive recently launched PlayStation Productions, a studio tasked with adapting the company’s video game properties into films and television shows, according to The Hollywood Reporter. PlayStation Productions is headed by Asad Qizilbash and overseen by SIE chairman of Worldwide Studios Shawn Layden. It’s reportedly already working on its first slate of projects on the [...]

  • Breaking Glass Takes U.S. on Female

    Breaking Glass Takes U.S. on Mexican Female Empowerment Pic 'Tatoo of Revenge' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Philadelphia-based indie distributor Breaking Glass Pictures has acquired North American rights to Mexican director Julian Hernandez’s female empowerment thriller “Tattoo of Revenge” in a deal closed with Italy-based company The Open Reel at the Cannes film market. “Tatoo” is the latest feature by the prolific Hernandez who is known on the festival circuit for films [...]

  • Thierry Fremaux Cannes

    Thierry Fremaux Says 'Cannes Will Always Side With Artists' at Alain Delon's Tribute

    Thierry Fremaux, the artistic director of the Cannes Film Festival, delivered a heartfelt homage to Alain Delon at a ceremony on Sunday during which the French actor received the honorary Palme d’Or. Alluding to the controversy that Delon has triggered with his past declarations, Fremaux said the actor was entitled to have his own convictions [...]

  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt's '7500' Sells to Amazon

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Thriller '7500' Sells to Amazon Studios

    Amazon Studios has acquired global rights to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s terrorist drama “7500.” The deal, announced Monday at the Cannes Film Festival, excludes Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Universum will distribute the film in Germany. More Reviews Cannes Film Review: 'Young Ahmed' TV Review: 'Good Omens' In “7500,” Gordon-Levitt plays the co-pilot of a plane that has [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content