Directed by: Nia DaCosta
Premise: The family home of a probationary offender (Tessa Thompson) and her sister (Lily James) is threatened with foreclosure. The two of them turn to illegally procuring and selling pain medications to save themselves from homelessness.
What Works: Little Woods is a story of economic survival as a pair of siblings try to save their family home when the only means available to do that exist outside the boundaries of the law. The filmmakers do a smart job of putting the characters in a desperate situation. Tessa Thompson’s character is a probationary offender days away from completing supervision, having been caught transporting perception drugs across the United States—Canada border. Her sister from another mister, played by Lily James, is a single parent living out of a van in a parking lot. The sisters have lost their mother to illness some time ago and the medical bills have put the family home in foreclosure. The scenario makes the characters sympathetic; the women are in a jam because of circumstances outside their control and their criminality comes out of desperation. Little Woods is set in rural North Dakota and the movie has a feel for its place. The locations and the supporting actors complement each other and the film has a gritty reality to its look. The film is shot in a way that’s quite naturalistic and the sparse and flat landscape is foreboding. That atmosphere escalates as the sisters’ situation becomes more desperate. The movie has a vivid feel of risk both from law enforcement and from the criminal figures they encounter. There is an additional dimension to Little Woods. This is a uniquely female movie. Aside from the sisters, nearly every other character in Little Woods is male and many of them are a threat to the sisters in some way. The story is implicitly about women navigating their way through legal and economic systems that exclude women and even victimize them and force these sisters outside the law in order to survive.
What Doesn’t: Little Woods casts Tessa Thompson and Lily James as sisters. Even setting aside the racial difference, Thompson and James don’t look much alike. The actors mostly overcome their physical differences because they behave like sisters. However, this story and its setting are rural and gritty but Thompson and James are very Hollywood. They never quite shake the glamour of their movie stardom and that creates a dissonance between these actors and the rest of the movie. Little Woods is about a pair of destitute people resorting to peddling pain pills to survive. The story puts us in the women’s shoes and creates empathy for their situation but it doesn’t consider the larger impact of what they are doing. This film takes place in the midst of an opioid epidemic that has ravaged rural communities but that context is absent from the movie.
DVD extras: Trailer.
Bottom Line: Little Woods is a tense story about physical and economic survival. Although it has a few blind spots, the movie is a compelling drama that is also a plainspoken political statement.
Episode: #765 (September 9, 2019)