James Badge Dale
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
Little Woods February 28, 2020
ittle Woods (2019), Nia DaCosta’s filmmaking debut, is a stark anti-thriller starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James as Ollie and Deb, two sisters who live in a small, opioid-ravaged North Dakota town. They’re between a rock and a hard place as the film opens. DaCosta quickly suggests, though, that such a reality has become so ingrained in them that exhaustion is getting closer to giving way to outright numbness
During the first act of the movie we learn that Ollie and Deb’s mother has just died after a long battle with an illness. We can still see medical equipment littered around the home Ollie still lives in that she and her mother shared. To make ends meet in recent years, Ollie has illegally sold prescription drugs. When we first meet her, however, she’s coming at the end of a probation period (she was arrested for drug smuggling at the U.S.-Canada border) and is trying to go straight. She’s currently serving meals to the workers she used to deal to at a local construction site; soon she has an interview for a job she cares at least a little about in Spokane. Deb lives with her young son, Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid), in a trailer hitched illegally in the parking lot of a big-box store.
Ollie and Deb have been estranged since around the time their mother died; similarly timed crises bring them back together. Deb finds out that she’s pregnant again by her no-good alcoholic ex (James Badge Dale); Ollie’s house is due to be foreclosed on, which complicates the plan that Ollie sign the house’s title to Deb if she winds up getting the Spokane job. These dilemmas present massive financial burdens — especially the facts that without insurance, giving birth could cost Deb her some $8,000 that she doesn’t have, and that if she were to get an abortion, the closest legal clinic is hundreds of miles away. That isn’t an option; neither are the back-alley alternatives about town. With increasing urgency, Ollie considers turning back to drug-dealing, briefly, to both save the house and help out Deb.
“Little Woods” is plotted like a thriller; it has a number of genre-specific race-against-time beats, with the law always lurking. But akin to the movies to which it’s often been compared — features like Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010) (from which DaCosta took inspiration) or David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” (2016) — it doesn’t exactly excite us like an orthodox thriller. These people are acting only out of economic hopelessness. They’ve had to resort to corner-cutting because, what else can you do in such pressing situations when you want to survive? The movie is grim but insistent; it grabs us. DaCosta handily establishes the environment in which Ollie and Deb live — financially depressed, opioid-addled, near-opportunity-less — without resorting to generalities. Thompson and James ably capture what it feels like to be relentlessly destabilized. The movie is more effective than bonafide great. But even if greatness slips by it, it’s still an unsettling drama that shows us how inescapable turmoil can lead someone to take the law into their own hands. B+