Review: Little Woods

RATING: ★★★★

In Little Woods, Nia DaCosta deftly directs Tessa Thompson and Lily James as two sisters struggling to survive in a drab North Dakota town. It's a very respectable directorial debut from DaCosta who manages to capture everyday problems that still feel very high stakes, even though the film can at times feel a bit meandering.

Ollie and Deb are adopted sisters struggling in the aftermath of their mother's death, with foreclosure on her house looming and no money to speak of. While Deb contends with an unwanted pregnancy with her ex, the father of her toddler son, Ollie has only a few days left on her probation for smuggling and selling illegal oxycodone from across the border in Canada. Ollie attempts to find ways to make ends meet legally despite the local drug dealer who wants her as a business partner and the people of the town who continue to ask her what she has, but things get more complicated when her sister tells her of her pregnancy.

Both Thompson and James give career highlight performances. Thompson is great as Ollie, a woman who clearly wants more from life than what she currently has, but is plagued by exhaustion that's apparent in her eyes. James is given grittier stuff to work with here than her normal roles and proves that she's a versatile actress to boot. Several of her scenes in the latter half of the movie should convince viewers that she is one of the best rising actresses working today.

The supporting cast all do their parts well, but it's certainly Thompson and James's movie. The movie is bleak and drab, not just in subject but in color scheme. It's impossible not to feel the oppressive weight of these women's world while watching it. The first part of the movie can feel a bit slow, but the second half speeds up and keeps you on the edge of your seat with fear for what will happen to Ollie, Deb, and Deb's young son.

DaCosta certainly has some interesting commentary on the healthcare system woven in, as people go across the border to Canada to receive treatment, and perhaps opioid addiction too. My favorite thing about the film though is how utterly unglamorous Thompson and James are throughout. This isn't to say that the two of them aren't beautiful women because they are. But I appreciate that this isn't one of those movies where women are trekking through the wilderness and yet have perfect hair and makeup. I'm not sure that there's a scene in the whole film where Thompson isn't dressed in a sweatshirt or hoodie.

To me, this is one of the greatest proofs of female influence in the film -- its understanding that a hard life like Ollie and Deb are living takes a physical toll. This isn't the sort of movie that will be nominated for any Oscars or maybe even be shown in the big movie theatre chains, but it's certainly worth a watch and proves that DaCosta, Thompson, and James are all women to keep your eye on.

I'm not sure what we did to deserve a superstar pairing like this in a female-directed film, but I'd sure love more like it.
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