In Little Woods, two sisters fight for better lives

by James Robins / 01 July, 2019
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LITTLE WOODS
directed by Nia DaCosta

Like Hell or High Water, Little Woods explores the isolation and precarity of small-town America.

“It’s been a rough time for a lot of people,” one character observes wryly in first-time director Nia DaCosta’s hard-edged crime thriller. That’s something of an understatement. The setting is North Dakota, a state of drab horizons flecked with screeching oil-well pump jacks. Its residents take no share in whatever bubbles up from this bleak land. Capsules of OxyContin, an opioid medication, are their only distraction from drudgery. Ollie (Tessa Thompson) used to smuggle them south from Canada, until the law got her. Her half-sister Deb (Lily James) is burdened not with probation, but an unwanted pregnancy. It costs $8000 to give birth in the US, we’re told. The local bank, just as rapacious as any other, is about to seize their family home. An ultimatum is set up early: cough up a few grand in a week or lose everything.

In this way, Little Woods is not unlike the 2016 film Hell or High Water. Both are riven with the isolation and precarity of our age, their characters forced to go far beyond reasonable limits to hold on to whatever is dear. “Your choices are only as good as your options,” Ollie says.

Then again, Little Woods doesn’t have the same desert-dry wit or sense of tension as Taylor Sheridan’s misanthropic masterpiece. But what DaCosta’s film does have is women. The director homes in on a distinct sense of female vulnerability: on top of everything else, Ollie and Deb have to deal with men, who are a persistent threat. Deb’s ex-husband (James Badge Dale) could throw a drunken fist at any moment. Ollie’s rival dealer puts her up against a wall. Cops are figures to be wary of, not trusted.

Faced with conveying all this, James seems out of her depth – a stark contrast to Thompson, who looks exhausted in her soul. It’s her that we latch on to, for she channels both the despair of the landscape and the rugged determination to make things right, or at least marginally better. If there is a road out, it’ll be bumpy, but she’ll find it.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: Zero Media

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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