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Little Woods

I can’t believe I nearly missed out on this one.

The feature debut of writer/director Nia DaCosta, Little Woods sets its stage in the eponymous backwoods town of North Dakota. Naturally, it’s a town where money is scarce and health care is even harder to come by. The good news is that quality healthcare and premium medication are available just over the border in Canada, for anyone willing to pay the money and take the risk for it.

Our protagonist is Ollie (short for Oleander, played by exec producer Tessa Thompson), who started running drugs to get the Canadian medication her ailing mother so desperately needed. And it turns out she was a natural at the game, but she always made it a point to sell to those with a genuine medical need, and not recreational drug users. Inevitably, Ollie gets caught and we flash forward to ten days before her probation is over. Her mother is now dead, which means that now she has to find some money to pay the overdue mortgage even as she’s still looking for steady legitimate work.

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of Ollie’s adoptive sister. Deb (played by Lily James, formerly Tessa Thompson’s White Voice in Sorry to Bother You) is a recovering drug addict. She’s also a struggling single mother to a son born of a drunken absentee father (Ian, played by James Badge Dale). And we meet Deb right when she finds out that she’s pregnant again. So regardless of whether she has the baby (costing thousands of dollars just to deliver it without insurance), or decides to abort (costing considerably less, though safe and reputable abortion clinics are few and far between here), she’s going to need that Canadian medicine.

So what we’ve got here is a modern take on the classic question of how to survive in a legitimate way when the whole system is rigged against you. Hell or High Water and A Most Violent Year immediately come to mind as two other films in recent memory that dealt with a similar theme. But this one goes several steps further by virtue of our two lead characters. Ollie is a woman of color and an ex-con; while Deb is a single mother, a former stripper, a recovering drug addict, and a woman seeking an abortion. And the both of them are poor single women living in some rural speck of land unknown to civilization. All we need is a third character who’s a disabled gay Muslim immigrant and we’d have the whole checklist!

If I sound like I’m treating the characters as flimsy tokens in any way, please be assured that the filmmakers (led by a black female writer/director, I should add) treat them as anything but. It really is astonishing how much character development is packed into these 100 minutes. I learned so much about these characters and I loved every moment. Even the stuff that had nothing to do with the main plot was compelling to watch. I can’t even begin to list all the fantastic setups and payoffs that elevate the movie in creative and unexpected little ways, even when they could’ve been cut from the movie with no harm done. For example, there’s one moment involving a cardboard box in a closet — it could’ve been easily cut, but the movie’s so much better for its inclusion. Even an ambiguous glance across a medical waiting room counter can raise the tension in fantastic ways.

Everything in the movie feels beautifully authentic, and all the characters (with a couple of rare exceptions, like the ID forgers in the third act) are elegantly nuanced. For instance, it would’ve been so easy to cast Lance Reddick as a hardass parole officer, but instead he plays the part as the kind of stern yet loving father figure you’d feel genuinely sorry for letting down. And it works perfectly.

But of course, it’s Tessa Thomson and Lily James who carry the film, and they do an incredible job. As sisters, as strong and determined women, and as occasional fuckups struggling upstream to make better lives for themselves, these two lead performances fire on all cylinders. These two run the emotional gamut through the entire running time, and the range they get to show off is positively staggering.

Then we have the presentation. Handheld camerawork is used in all the right ways, making everything feel more immersive without ever getting too distracting. I was also very fond of the score and soundtrack, plus a few utterly gorgeous still shots. Additional kudos for all the night shots that are crystal clear without looking like cheap day-for-night — I’ve seen too many indie films fail at that. Even the shots at daybreak look fantastic — the dawn hours are so few and far between, and it’s a whole day of shooting lost if that narrow window is missed. It’s deceptively and extremely difficult to get those shots, so I’m genuinely impressed the filmmakers nailed it that hard.

I have no problem giving Little Woods a full recommendation. As a character drama, a crime thriller, a film that’s pro-choice (yeah, fair warning about that third rail) without getting preachy, and as a damning depiction of all the ways our system is built to fail, it works superbly. The cast is wonderful across the board, all of the performances — the two leads most especially — are marvelous, and it’s frankly astounding how a first-time director was able to put together a movie this well-crafted.

It’s a heartfelt and thoughtful movie that doesn’t skimp on the dramatic tension. Definitely not one to miss.

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