Movie Review: ‘LITTLE WOODS’ a gripping social drama that stings like pine needles

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James C. Clay // Film Critic

LITTLE WOODS

R, 105 minutes.
Director: Nia DaCosta
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, James Badge Dale, Luke Kirby

Bear with me as I quote Kanye West: “Having money is not everything, not having it is.”

This anxiety is compounded ten fold in director Nia DaCosta’s film LITTLE WOODS, which portrays a space surrounded by danger, darkness, and beauty. There’s a meditative streak to this film, which has DaCosta pairing Tessa Thompson (CREED) with Lily James (BABY DRIVER). Both actors are outside their comfort zone, yet they feel embolden to tell a story that affects so many Americans today.

Cut from the same cloth as Debra Granik’s WINTER’S BONE, with a twinge of Kelly Reichardt, this thriller see that DaCosta has an original vision that’s imprinted all over the canvas of this project. The emerging filmmaker made a film that speaks to the lower class Americans and poses their problems without judgement, only a victim of circumstance. After seeing LITTLE WOODS, you may know now why Jordan Peele hired DaCosta to headline the reboot of horror film CANDYMAN that hits theaters next year. Her mind is on the pulse of American social issues, and this is a voice Hollywood so badly needs.

The film follows Ollie (Thompson) and Deb (James), two sisters who have been estranged for some time after the passing of their mother (who we never encounter). There’s a sadness that lingers across Little Woods, North Dakota, a sense of hopelessness that the people who live in this once prosperous town are just existing. There are no promises, only despair.

Lily James, left, and Tessa Thompson in ‘LITTLE WOODS.’ Courtesy of Neon.

Ollie is enduring her last few days of probation that she is serving for crossing the Canadian border with a fist full of painkillers and an intent to distribute. DaCosta punctures ripe social commentary regarding lower income blue collar life, and their addiction to prescription medication. It’s a nasty cycle that breeds poverty, crime, and addiction. The sisters reconnect as Deb realizes that she’s going through an unplanned pregnancy with a deadbeat boyfriend (played by my favorite on-screen weirdo James Badge Dale).

There are countless impossible decisions that must be made in fast forward. The two sisters have a week to come up with nearly $6,000 to save their family’s decrepit house from the bank and decide what the next step is going to be for Deb’s pregnancy. There are dangerous men and law enforcement lurking around every corner. For Ollie and Deb, however, this is a by-any-means-necessary situation, and the only cure is the almighty dollar. In this film, there are no time for hugs.

DaCosta dives deep into the corruption of money and the power. It can save lives just as easily as it can end them. Thompson and James’ performances keep a distance from one another; there’s a closeness and history between the sisters, yet they play their parts like sincerity is a disease that can cause heartache.

LITTLE WOODS is not a thriller made for those looking for immediate payoffs. DaCosta takes her time in developing her setting and story, with results that are at times not so subtle. Balancing the systemic problem of poverty is no easy feat for a filmmaker who isn’t interested in solving the issues that plague the United States.

LITTLE WOODS is a challenging film, to say the least, that provides a platform for its actors to dive into lush thematic territory. This is a film that doesn’t rely on authenticity to convey its message. There’s almost a cushion to DaCosta’s film that feels necessary, and a safe space to lure in those who may not gravitate to this film at first glance. While the film simmers with depression, there’s hope after discovering DaCosta’s cinematic voice.

Grade: B

LITTLE WOODS is now playing in limited release.