Little Woods is a defiantly little movie – the story of two mismatched sisters in the backwoods of North Dakota, struggling with poverty and crime. In an age when films are valued in terms of big budgets, box office and celebrity power, Nia DaCosta’s directorial debut gives the impression that it was shot in a remote corner of the north-west when nobody was watching. It’s ambitions are those of a well-received-debut that may lead to bigger things.
In fact DaCosta’s next movie is already in pre-production: a sequel to the 1992 cult horror, Candyman. The film has been scripted and produced by Jordan Peele, who has scored two huge successes with Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), which have given an intelligent, satirical spin to the horror genre.
If Little Woods is an example of DaCosta’s style it’s hard to imagine her helming a gore-fest, but who knows? Not many people who saw Taika Waititi’s debut feature, Eagle vs Shark (2007) could have imagined him directing a big budget super-hero film, but last week the boy from Wellington bought a mansion in Los Angeles.
One thing missing from Little Woods, which both Peele and Waititi understand, is comedy. There’s no shortage of intimacy and sincerity, but the story proceeds with a kind of low-level earnestness that becomes slightly monotonous. A flash of colour to relieve the gloom would have been welcome.
When we meet the lead character, Ollie (Tessa Thompson), she is having a flashback about burying a bag in the woods and being menaced by a police truck. Next there’s a knock at the door in the middle of the night. It’s a guy with an injured foot wanting to buy opoids, but Ollie can only help him with a bandage. She says she’s not dealing any more.
As the story is fleshed out we learn that Ollie and her sister, Deb (Lily James) have recently lost their mother. While Ollie still lives in the old house, Deb is an unmarried mother with a small son, Johnny (Charlie Ray Read), who has taken up residence in a trailer park. Ollie is the practical one in the family but she is on probation, after having been arrested during an illegal border crossing into Canada.
It seems that Ollie got involved in smuggling and selling opoids to obtain pain-killers for her mum, but pursued the trade as a way of making an income in a dead-end town. Now that her parole has only days to run she is determined to keep out of trouble. Instead she ekes out a living by cooking and delivering meals for the workers at the local oil wells.
When the sisters have to raise money quickly to avoid foreclosure on the family home it’s inevitable that Ollie will start dealing again. It’s equally inevitable that lots of things will go wrong. Events unfold in a largely predictable fashion, although DaCosta doesn’t follow the most obvious paths. A bigger problem is the way she allows the narrative to grow vague, and occasionally becalmed. The dialogue too, rarely gets beyond the most pedestrian exchanges.
The strength of Little Woods lies with the actors, and their ability to inject life into characters that lead ordinary, rather squalid lives in a non-descript frontier town. Tessa Thompson’s Ollie is a strong, resourceful personality who has become accustomed to doing whatever is necessary to make ends meet.
Lily James has a different task with her portrayal of Deb, a girl who has been reckless with her life. Not only does she have a small boy and no money, she is pregnant again, and weighing the costs of an abortion. We meet Deb at a turning point in her life when she is finally facing up to her responsibilities, which involves overcoming her resentment at her sister’s life-saving competence.
It may be a man’s world in a mining town, but the men in this movie are shallow, sinister or useless. Deb’s ex-boyfriend, (James Badge Dale) is a boozer, who shows no sign of mending his ways. Bill (Luke Kirby) is a drug-dealer who would like Ollie to either work for him or stay off his patch. Lance Redding plays Ollie’s paternalistic probation officer, who keeps saying she’s done him proud.
The underlying subject of Little Woods is the same elephant-in-the-room found in almost every new movie from the United States: Trump’s America, where the long-term poor are sinking into an underclass, and opoid addiction has reached epidemic proportions. We recognise Ollie as a good person who is dealing in drugs because it is her only means of earning quick money and helping her dysfunctional sister. Her customers are miners who need to find a way of working through the pain barrier, or truck drivers who to have to stay awake to meet punishing schedules.
Like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), Little Woods is a report from the bottom of the barrel. If it lacks the harsh, brittle directness of that movie, it’s because DaCosta spends so much of her time finessing the relationship between the sisters, making the focus more personal than political. I wish it could say this resulted in gripping drama, but despite the strong performances of the two leads, all we get is a small expression of hope in the midst of a depressing reality.
Written & directed by Nia DaCosta
Starring Tessa Thompson, Lily James, James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby, Charlie Ray Read
USA, rated M, 105 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 May, 2019