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Little Woods
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by Jay Seaver

"Tough going in a supposed boomtown."
3 stars

"Little Woods" is the sort of decent independent film that catches your eye more for the star who has been doing bigger things lately than anything else a preview or description can hook you with, and that's while sometimes that sort of movie will surprise you, this one basically does what it says on the label. It's the kind of straightforward, probably-authentic sort of rural lament that the rest of the country could probably do with seeing a little more often, and that's okay. It never becomes an exceptionally tense thriller or knife-twisting drama, but it tells stories that don't necessarily get their due fairly well.

The town of the title is in North Dakota, one of those places where all the money from the initial oil boom has wound up concentrated in the drilling company's hands and everyone else is striving to make ends meet. Oleander (Tessa Thompson) - "Ollie" for short - scrapes up the odd buck by doing laundry for the workers and selling hot coffee and sandwiches for less than the company cafeteria. She also used to sell pills, but she's kept out of trouble while on probation so she could take care of her sick mother. She's passed, but the house is about to be foreclosed upon, and Ollie might have a good prospect out in Spokane, but her sister Deb (Lily James) is living in an illegally parked trailer with her son Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid), and has just found out she's pregnant again. The only way to save the house seems to be that bag Ollie buried when smuggling their mom's medicine over the Canadian border.

The border is one of the first and last images that Nia DaCosta lays on the audience, and it's an unconventionally striking one, a sort of notch in the landscape and a bit of cleared space with a post in there, highlighting how artificial and arbitrary it is that you can get decent health care there but not here. The actual danger to crossing this clear but also kind of theoretical line is elsewhere, although DaCosta has built enough tension up in previous scenes for some to bleed over. It's the most overtly dramatic section of the film, and DaCosta plays that notch for all it's worth.

Much of the rest requires a bit of careful examination to let the nature of the sisters' environment sink in. equipment laying around the house and Ollie's sleeping habits tell enough of the story of the sisters' late mother's illness as the audience needs, for instance, while the bare cement walls in the dormitory where the workers live suggests a prison or maybe a repurposed school, but not a home, and the way someone asks Deb about "going home" plays into that. The film has been described as a Western, but it's a Western without the beautiful landscapes or potential for a fresh start, all company towns, predators, and distance from safety.

Ollie sometimes seems a little too good to be true in this world; aside from the opening flashback, the audience only sees her after she has gotten herself together and no longer has to deal with the demands of a dying family member. That's arguably why the role needs someone as good as Tessa Thompson is her; even if she gets to play the mostly-capable sister, she does so with a nice balance of confidence and empathy but just enough tendency to scan the corners of her vision to show that she can be pragmatic, too. The performance becomes more obviously impressive when the audience can see and feel just how tired and worn down Ollie is by the end, but mostly, Thompson manages to make it so that when other characters talk about her potential, it doesn't feel like they're trying to convince the audience.

It's the arc of Lily James's sister that in some ways becomes more fascinating, if only because of some of the decisions DaCosta makes. Films will often dance around how her decision to have an abortion can be a sign of her increased responsibility, but this one is unflinching about it, and James impresses as she confronts every aspect of it. Deb has perhaps screwed up more than Ollie, and doesn't have the instincts her sister does, so her figuring stuff out is smaller, less certain steps. It's a nifty, tricky bit of work camouflaged a bit by the story centering on Thompson's Ollie, and sometimes takes advantage of that to show her being a bit frustrated to have Ollie as a point of comparison, with both James and Thompson playing off each other well whether they're showing how siblings have each other's backs or get under each other's skins.

DaCosta and her team tell the story well, and the distinct, pointed choices she makes in which challenges the sisters face - and, indeed, that it is sisters facing them - sets "Little Woods" a just enough apart from other stories about towns where it's equally draining to stay or try to leave to be interesting, even if the basic bones of it are the same. And since stories about how folks in places like rural North Dakota are often backed against the wall for financial and health reasons don't necessarily get seen at all without the likes of Thompson and James, it just might be the best of that type of film that people can easily see.

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originally posted: 04/25/19 09:16:07
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  19-Apr-2019 (R)

  N/A (15)

  N/A (M)

Directed by
  Nia DaCosta

Written by
  Nia DaCosta

  Tessa Thompson
  Lily James
  Lance Reddick
  Luke Kirby
  James Badge Dale

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