Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Movie Review: Little Woods

Little Woods *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Nia DaCosta.
Written by: Nia DaCosta.
Starring: Tessa Thompson (Ollie), Lily James (Deb), Luke Kirby (Bill), Lance Reddick (Carter), James Badge Dale (Ian), Elizabeth Maxwell (Jenny), Luci Christian (Sheila), Morgana Shaw (Gerry), Joe Stevens (Jack), Brandon Potter (Dale), Max Hartman (Officer Minnerath), Jeremy St. James (Mike), Charlie Ray Reid (Johnny), Lydia Tracy (Jody).
Nia DaCosta’s debut film Little Woods is a kind of modern noir/Western for the opioid epidemic years. It features two strong performances by Tessa Thompson and Lily James, playing half-sisters with no real options in terms of their financial situation. They compete to see who is more desperate – and there is really no way out for either of them. But they try – they could become resigned to their fate, but they aren’t. They fight, even if their options are limited. It offers no easy answers – not even in the end. It’s a film that brings to mind films like Frozen River, Winter’s Bone or Wind River – although it’s not as good as the first two of those. All too often, DaCosta’s screenplay spells everything out in a way that isn’t necessary, given how strong the two lead performances are, and how much the actresses communicate without saying exactly what is on their mind.
Thompson stars as Ollie – a woman in the final days of her probation for selling drugs. She smuggled prescription drugs from Canada into North Dakota – some for her sick mother (no dead) and others more dangerous, like OxyContin. We see some of her former clients – they are not the kind of strung out junkie’s movies often portray – but addicts who are in pain, started taking these drugs for their intended purpose – pain relief – and have now been cut off. But if they stop, the pain comes back – and if that happens, they’ll miss work, be fired, and be out on the street. What are they supposed to do? Ollie has her sights set on a new life – one that requires a move out of town, and a new job. Her P.O. (Lance Reddick) has setup an interview for her – and if she gets the job, she can start again. She won’t be rich – but she’ll be out.
Things are complicated by her half-sister Deb (Lily James) – already raising one son by herself, who is pregnant again. The dad is the same – drug dealer Ian (James Badge Dale) – who keeps coming back, but fails to offer much support. Deb has no insurance – an abortion isn’t cheap or easy to get where she is, and having the baby is even more expensive – and that’s just literally to give birth. Their mom’s house is about to be foreclosed on as well – unless they can come up with a few thousand dollars. Given all of this, it’s no wonder Ollie makes the decisions she does – and eventually drags Deb in with her.
Thompson has always been a fine actress – but rarely has she been given a role with the depth of Ollie. It’s a role where she is at her best the quieter she is. You can see her thinking, calculating what needs to be done, and how in order to get what she and her sister needs to get out from under. Or the panic and frustration when things don’t go as planned – until she figures out the next steps. James is nearly as good as Deb – a woman prone to making one bad decision after another, but is a good person at heart. She just cannot figure what to do next.
The rest of the actors in the film are fine – even if they aren’t really given the material to be much more then archetypes for most of the runtime. They are all fine – Luke Kirby can be downright scary at times and Lance Reddick is legitimately sympathetic. James Badge Dale delivers a fine performance as this pathetic man who cannot bring himself to do what he knows he should on a consistent basis. He’s a weak man, pretending to be strong.
DaCosta’s direction is stronger than her writing. The film looks every bit as good as those other films mentioned off the top – Frozen River, Winter’s Bone, Wind River. And the performances are almost as strong as well – at least the leads. And yet, the dialogue sometimes lets them down. It’s too on the nose to be truly effective – too clichéd. It’s to the credit of Thompson and James that they make most of it work – but the film underlines everything too much when the characters talk. Still, there is so much here to like, it’s hard to complain too much – and impossible not to get excited to see what DaCosta does next (apparently, it’s the Candyman remake/reboot/sequel). She’s certainly a director to watch.

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