Little Woods is a film laced with tragedy but gifted with an optimistic and stubborn heart. A crime thriller so richly observed I found myself gasping not out of shock or surprise but out of basic human empathy. Nia DaCosta’s debut is a deeply felt quiet tale of tiny incidents reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu.
I mention Ozu because like the Japanese master, DaCosta mines tragedy and warmth from the small minutiae of our day to day lives. Little Woods explores not the seedy underbelly of a North Dakota oil boomtown but the waking nightmare which is the American healthcare system. “Your choices are only as good as your options are.”
Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) are sisters. The two are in a limbo between estranged and inseparable. Ollie is on the tail end of her parole. In the beginning, we learn she has a scant ten days left. Being told how many days of parole a character has at the beginning of the movie is akin to finding out one of the characters on the force is about to retire.
She was arrested for being a drug runner. But the drugs she was carrying were medical and the border she was crossing illegally was Canada. The citizens of Little Woods need pain medication because it cost too much to go to the doctor or they don’t have the time to wait.
Late at night, Ollie is woken up by an old customer. He’s limping and begging for some relief. He takes off his socks and shows her his bruised and swollen foot. “You should have that looked at.” The man nods. “I did. Waited for six hours. Had to go to work during the seventh.”
DaCosta isn’t interested in telling your typical crime drama. She’s more interested in showing us, as Shepard once called it, the curse of the starving class. Ollie and Deb’s mother has died. Ollie is staying in their mother’s house.
Threats by the bank to foreclose on the house don’t worry Ollie. She’s on her way out thanks to her parole officer Carter (Lance Reddick). Yet, even as she has gotten her life straightened out selling coffee and pastries to the oil men of the town she can’t escape her past.
Thompson is a raging talent. I have compared her to the great Marlene Dietrich and I stand by that comparison. Though she hovers between well scrubbed and slightly rumpled, she is still radiant. I say this only to say that if not for her charisma and sheer ability, Ollie would not have been so relatable. She hews closer to what a Hollywood movie thinks “poor” looks like but she overcomes that by creating such a flesh and blood character that we believe every movement and word.
While interviewing for a job while violating her parole she is confronted by her old boss and local drug czar, Bill (Luke Kirby). The two argue before Bill has Ollie pressed against the wall by her throat. Thompson’s journey in the two scenes from jittery nerves to irritated confidence and ending with sheer terror is a sight to see.
Even more impressive is how she does it all with a slight change of posture. Her eyes shine trying to figure out to end this conversation with Bill as soon as possible. She traverses these emotions effortlessly only to circle back to jittery as she returns to the interview.
Unlike Ollie, Deb is on a downward spiral. A single mother, she lives in a trailer located in a parking lot with several tow notices. Her ex-husband Ian (James Badge Dale) is both a hard working man, a hard drunk, and an amateur dealer. She is drowning and hearing of Ollie’s plans to leave she all but begs for help.
The only real moment of incredulity is when Ollie and Deb go to the bank and make a payment deal with them to keep the house. “If you saw the house, you’d pay us to keep it.” No bank is so reasonable. It offers yet another ticking clock along with Ollie’s parole.
Like all tragedy and crime dramas, all well-laid plans must have wrenches tossed into them. DaCosta’s script wisely plants the foreshadowing of these wrenches but does not allow them to doom these women. Ollie will merely make one last run and Deb will come with her to get an abortion.
Though it behaves like a tragedy it is with great joy I can safely say it is not. The women refuse to bend or buckle. Deb and Ollie persevere and make it to the other side.
DaCosta’s dialogue is tight and methodical. Like all good dialogue, it is not what is said that matters but what is not said. Except when the sisters talk to each other. Separate and to other people their language is guarded and terse. But which each other they are brutally honest and leave no room for misunderstanding.
The dourness of DaCosta’s script would have one believe we were watching a noir. Matt Mitchell’s camera drapes Little Woods in shadows and golden hues of sunsets. The camera is purposeful and infuriating. DaCosta and Mitchell give us long shots when we yearn to be closer to the characters to better see their faces. But then they give us close-ups and medium shots when we desperately crave distance.
The two work in perfect synchronicity as they craft tension organically within a single frame. Take the scene after Ollie and Deb have a fight. Ollie goes out drinking.
Mitchell’s camera sits in the seat next to her as she knocks back shot after shot of bourbon. The background blurry while she is illuminated by the neon sign out front. The sounds of men playing pool overwhelm the soundtrack. It’s then we see a man turn and look at Ollie. He makes his way over and attempts to flirt with her while groping her. She fights back and it’s she who is thrown out.
Another scene has Deb going into a stranger’s house to buy fake ID’s for the trip over the border. Again Mitchell’s camera sits close, framing Deb in the doorway from the entryway into a room. Behind her is another room, lights out framing her perfectly. Then a man appears from the dark spooking both Deb and us.
Brilliantly comments on the everyday terror women must face when they interact with men alone. It just so happens to coincide with the budding tension of people trying desperately to get their lives together only to be waylaid by fate, the system, or just some random a-hole.
James is an actor who I usually like more than the movie I’m watching her in. Here DaCosta has given her something to sink her teeth too. She plays Deb with a ferocity and vulnerability she’s not been afforded in past roles.
Merely watch her face as she presents the receptionist (Rochelle Robinson) at the OBGYN with her fake ID. Watch the flood of emotions wash over her as she waits and stutters through one of the more intense scenes in the movie. The scene is near perfect in its rhythm and structure with the two actresses making a nail-biting moment out of what a lesser director would merely skip.
Little Woods flows with stillness and calm which keeps us alert and tense. Yet, in the end, as the two women look at each other and smile we breathe easily. The words they exchange aren’t necessary but put us at ease nonetheless.
The ending though abrupt, and it could be argued, anti-climatic, feels right. I found myself letting out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. It ends when it should and not when we want it too.
Gorgeous and flushed with empathy towards its characters it feels like the work of someone more accomplished. For a debut, it is starling in its subtle intensity and nuanced observations of class and complex relationships. Little Woods is a film with no bad scenes and more than a few great ones.
Image courtesy of Neon