Courtesy of NEON
Director Nia DaCosta has captured a rare and insightful look at the life of America’s struggling working class with the new modern-day Western “Little Woods.” DaCosa, in her directorial debut, manages to balance elements of economic depression in a manner that feels eerily reflective of the current state of our country. This film offers no glitz or glamour, this is real, raw, and authentic.
Taking place in Little Woods, North Dakota, Tessa Thompson gives one of her best performances playing Ollie, a parolee with only eight days left to go, and is caught in a battle between staying on the right side of the law, or falling back into a rhythm which got her in trouble before. Bur her current situation leads her down the dark path of illegally smuggling drugs across the Canadian border and selling to the addicted. Her estranged sister Deb (Lily James - very effective) and her nephew live in roving motor home, as their family house is on the brink of foreclosure. The bank provides the sisters with one week to pay what they owe: $5,000, a massive struggle for anyone, but for the poverty stricken Ollie and Deb, it proves more of a challenge to make ends meet even without this latest roadblock.
Back in the business of drug peddling, Ollie picks up her old trade once again, which lands her on every drug dealer’s radar (it’s a small town, people talk) including her nephew's father (James Badge Dale) and local supplier Billy (Luke Kirby). Trying to hide current operation, Ollie plans to make enough dough to pay off the bank and get out while the going is good. Meanwhile Deb finds out she’s pregnant again, but can’t afford to have another child - forcing another taunt and emotional dilemma in this sneaky and quietly effective drama.
DaCosta does a great job by establishing mood, which mirrors the likes of “Winter’s Bone” or “Hell or High Water” - but the way it depicts the struggles of these female characters (and antiheroes) is somewhat fresh even if the coincidental dialogue can feel out of place within the somber moments in the script.
Thompson, on the other hand, continues to prove she’s one of the most versatile actors working today with the likes of “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Annihilation” (one of the best films of 2018) already on her resume. She is bold and projects a certain radiance in her performances that is both engaging to watch and satisfying. Likewise for James who, until now, was stuck playing the same roles over the last few years (a damsel who needs to be saved like in “Baby Driver”) and here she’s never been better.
For all the efforts on display here, “Little Woods” doesn’t feel as inventive as it wants to be, but the stylish cinematography opens up a small slice of the wilderness that provides a striking geographical backdrop to a film that already had the benefit of impressive performances and bold narrative choices.