Film Review: ‘Little Woods’

Peter Debruge

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.

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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.

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