“Little Woods” by director Nia DaCosta is a film about two sisters up against harsh circumstances, with little to grasp. Though it is reminiscent of many desperate family films, most recently “Winter’s Bone” and “Good Time,” the story has charge and spirit due primarily to the actors Tessa Thompson and Lily James (Downton Abbey).
In North Dakota, Ollie (Thompson) is a part time prescription drug dealer forced to take matters into her own hands and Deb (James) is her addicted sister.
While their mother has recently passed, the bank is foreclosing on the house. Deb is expecting but is coping with deadbeat Ian (James Badge Dale). Already with a son Johnny and squatting in an abandoned mobile home, she has no assets or money.
Since Deb is clearly unprepared, Ollie takes the helm, but there is one last catch: Ollie is on probation.
Though this could easily become a melodramatic tale of woe, the story has suspense as Ollie dodges numerous shady people. The episodic maze is compulsively watchable. An existential rhythm is in force to great advantage, and to the film’s credit we are never force fed events or emotions. Episodes occur very naturalistically without drama, as is. Because of this, we feel more intensely for the sisters and a sense of claustrophobia builds.
The pulse of the film is akin to a novel by Dennis Lehane. Many characters, male and female have some element within them that is either eerie or bestial and not one person is to be trusted without question.
From an illegal identification shack to a rundown bar or a diner, one is never sure what to expect, yet some circuitous dilemmas ignite the tension.
Thompson’s stoic force fills the screen. Although Ollie is driven to take part in an unsavory occupation, she is no born criminal, she is fighting for survival. During one fight scene, there is no doubt that Ollie is a real life superhero.
Here, as in recent Marvel films, the men are largely full of noisy rage, bluster and ultimately become ineffectual.
The women take charge.
With good pacing and apprehension, “Little Woods” is an anxious film in company with other indie thrillers, like the aforementioned “Winter’s Bone,” yet in its downbeat setting and moody spirit, it also fits well with the film “Certain Women” (2016) where a mere whisper can bring unease.
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