Little Woods is the kind of movie that makes you wonder about the backstory of writer-director Nia DaCosta (who is signed on to direct the Jordan Peele produced Candyman remake), who enriches the film with down-home specificity that it feels like much more than just a facsimile of authenticity. Her’s is the kind of movie that feels written from personal experience, that pulls from the specifics of a life harshly lived, that doesn’t wallow in its poverty porn setting, and though dour and depressing, never compromises its optimistic, full-spirited edge and push towards the light. It’s a neo-western in construction – the story of a good person doing a bad thing for good reasons, and DaCosta teases out the drive for self-preservation by any means by focusing on character first and foremost.
In the fracking wasteland of Little Woods, North Dakota, Ollie (Tessa Thompson, Creed) and Deb (Lily James, Cinderella) look for ways out from under the boot – suffering the daily oppression of pennilessness; threatened with impending homelessness, under the watchful eye of the American penal system. There’s scumbag dudes floating in and out of their lives but their stories are not affected by romance, nor driven by society patriarchy. DaCosta’s bleak character-driven drama follows the two sisters as they try to navigate home foreclosure, job opportunity, and an unwanted pregnancy, coloring outside the law to achieve some semblance of being afloat. DaCosta’s film could just as easily have had Debra Granki’s name signed to it in that it exists in the same basic family tree as movies like Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace – all character studies that take a magnifying glass to the often unseen, unromanticized victims of American capitalism. As painted by DaCosta, North Dakota is a place of forlorn destitution. A black hole of opportunity scraped together with parking lot residences, aluminum siding, and cheap plywood. A fracking nightmare. The production design from Yvonne Boudreaux amplifies the total lack of opportunity baked into Ollie and Deb’s story as Brian McOmber’s musical selections draw out an almost mythic folksy quality to their tale of struggle. A hollowness to McOmber’s musical timbre reflects back that sense of dejection and solitude and underscores conflicting passages of hope and hopelessness. It’s your uplifting tale about a woman illegally smuggling OxyContin across the American-Canadian border to raise money for her adoptive sister’s abortion story, the music gently reminds, and one that’ll have you needing a cold shower by its end.
Draped in plaid, violently drunk, begging for a last chance, or genuinely hopefully for the future, the supporting cast (James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick, and Luke Kirby) further color the lives of Ollie and Deb, adding complication and texture to their bootstraps attempt at pulling themselves out of a desperate situation by any means necessary. Some encourage, others threatened. Still more plead. Yes, there are good and bad guys to this story but everyone is struggling and at least trying to put on a good front to face the world.
There’s dramatic irony in the juxtaposition of racist Trumpian bluster about that proposed wall separating America and Mexico whereas our characters attempt to flee the U.S. to the promised land of Canada, a place where health care is a human right, a land they’ve come to see as their only chance for renewal. Scuzzy in setting but never lacking hope, Little Woods compounds lack of privilege through the lens of gender and race and like so many Americans struggling to keep afloat in the age of the billionaire, the crude disparity between the haves and have-nots becomes the ultimate enemy.
The movie largely rides on Thompson’s performances, who personifies the fight for freedom for bondage in many ways. She’s the victim of her circumstance but not one who succumbs to victimization and though she takes risks with her future to secure her present, Thompson’s Ollie is a kind soul, willing to sacrifice for her family and Thompson brings complexity, grit, and humanity to the role in spades. She’s not a Clint Eastwood type – she’s something more. And that’s pretty badass in itself.
CONCLUSION: Nia DaCosta’s dramatic debut is a strongly-performed study of the power of poverty that allows Tessa Thompson further opportunity to shine. Though its depressingly realist take on American anti-exceptionalism is thoughtful and emotionally honest, it fails to offer quite enough dramatic crescendoes to make it truly fracking memorable.
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