The crime film ‘Little Woods’ focuses on big American problems
Written and directed by: Nia DaCosta
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, and Lance Riddick
“Little Woods” – “You are so close.”
A few people say these exact words to Ollie (Tessa Thompson), but her probation officer (Lance Reddick) also adds, “Please stay out of trouble.”
Her probation ends in eight days.
Throughout her adult life, Ollie has emotionally and financially struggled in a small North Dakota town, a place that should be lapping the riches of the natural gas boom, but just about everyone we meet – including our heroine – looks exhausted.
Exhausted from continuous turns of bad luck.
Exhausted from the same self-inflicted mistakes.
Exhausted from the lack of opportunities.
Exhausted from the past haunting the present.
Ollie is an unenviable member of the working poor, and her criminal history originated out of necessity. Her sister Deb (Lily James) suffers from missteps and trying circumstances too. She’s unemployed and lives with her preteen son Johnny (Charlie Ray Bend) – the only known optimist (that she knows) within a hundred miles - in a camper that illegally resides on a big-box store parking lot.
Ollie and Deb sit and rot in their miserable quandaries, but since they are sisters, they unfortunately share their troubles, and a messy sibling-history has formed emotional scar tissue and engorged vulnerabilities. Now, with Ollie “so close” to freeing herself from her surroundings and invisible chains, Deb’s problems and horrible timing present her older sister with a near-impossible moral choice.
The bleak financial environment in “Little Woods” feels as discouraging as the circumstances in “The Rider” (2018) and “Frozen River” (2008), and writer/director Nia DaCosta purposely chose a rural setting near the Canadian border. DaCosta mentioned during a 2018 screening and Q&A that her picture centers around the inaccessibility of affordable and nearby health care and its effect on women.
For instance, a clinic administrator mentions that without health insurance, a mother would have to fork over $8,000 to have a baby. Meanwhile, in nearby Manitoba, the price tag would be dramatically less or perhaps nonexistent. The fight for reproductive rights plays an important role in the story too. While older men place legal binds on the said issue, Ollie and Deb are surrounded by uncooperative and threatening young blokes who infringe on their current spaces.
Landmines lurk everywhere, and Thompson and James are mesmerizing as the long-suffering sisters who repeatedly fail to avoid them. Ollie needs emotional layers to hide her anxiety from those who could actually (and ironically) lend a hand, and although she properly conceals her true feelings from key, on-screen characters, the audience obviously sees the duality in Thompson’s gritty, nuanced performance. Deb is a classic, younger-sibling screw-up who regularly reaches to Ollie for help and offers nothing but problems as payment. Not unlike Ethan Hawke’s Hank in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007), Deb sports a magnet towards turmoil.
“Little Woods” - DaCosta’s feature film debut - is a slow-burning crime film built on a foundation of big ideas and massive American problems, including one not mentioned in this review. This talented writer/director is not “so close” to arriving on the big stage, because she proudly stands tall on it right now.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.