2019, R, 103 min. Directed by Nia DaCosta. Starring Tessa Thompson, Lily James, James Badge Dale, Luke Kirby, Lance Reddick, Charlie Ray Reid.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 19, 2019
A trademark of the thriller plot is a ticking clock, some deadline that our heroine is racing to beat, or ride out. Little Woods has two ticking clocks, in fact, and they are at cross-purposes. Ollie (Thompson) is down to her last week on probation, and she’s determined to steer clear of the drug dealing and running that got her in trouble in the first place, transporting Oxy across the U.S.-Canada border. But she also has only one week to raise enough money to keep the bank from foreclosing on her late mother’s house. Neither she nor her sister Deb (James), a waitress and single mom studying nights for her college entrance exam, have that kind of cash. Ollie is hardworking and resourceful – a problem solver – but selling coffee and breakfast tacos out of the back of her truck isn’t going to save the house.
Little Woods is being billed as a thriller, but that raises certain expectations the movie isn’t interested in meeting. So how else to categorize Little Woods? As misery porn? It’s certainly a grim picture of a fracking boomtown in cold and rugged North Dakota. (The film was actually shot in Austin, but you’d never guess it.) As a showreel? Two superior actresses distinguished for their charisma and infectious energy, Thompson (who executive produced) and James flex different muscles as two women who’ve had it rough – they seem so drained – while first-time writer/director Nia DaCosta has already parlayed Little Woods’ 2018 festival run into her next gig, directing a Candyman reboot.
Instead, I began to think of Little Woods as a kind of procedural: a blunt examination of the accumulation of setbacks, bad breaks, and not-great choices that back a person into a corner. DaCosta takes an empathetic but never pandering approach to the material. The camera and edit doesn’t goose you with jump scares. It keeps a watchful distance and lets the viewer observe the way Deb and Ollie keep their coats on in the house, because of course they can’t afford heating, or how a cheap wheelchair is folded and leaned against the wall, a never explained but innately understood relic of their late mother, or how a state trooper interacts with Ollie, who is black, and adjusts his behavior when he meets Deb, who is white. A thriller would turn those details into clues. DaCosta treats them like texture. A thriller wants to entertain you. Little Woods wants you to think, and feel. I did both.