Little Woods

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Lily James as Deb and Tessa Thompson as Ollie in Little Woods
"Thompson's forceful, charismatic performance brings life to what could have been a relentlessly grim film, but it also unbalances the drama somewhat." | Photo: Matt Mitchell

It's grim up north - North Dakota to be precise - in Nia DaCosta's blunt feature d├ębut about the life of two half sisters in a dead end town. Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is a former prisoner who used to run Oxycontin across the border from Canada (at least some of it to people in genuine pain but unable to get prescriptions) and is now coming to the end of her parole period and determined to go straight. Deb (Lily James) is a strung-out single mother living in a trailer who has just found out that she's pregnant again and can't afford either the care needed to have the child safely or an abortion. Both women had relied on inheriting something from their mother, whom Deb recently nursed through her final months, but when they are told that unless they produce a hefty advance on paying of debts they didn't know about they'll lose everything, all hope seems lost. They can only see one way out. Can Ollie smuggle her sister into Canada where a fake ID can get her a free abortion? And can she get back into the drug business to make they money they need with one final job?

The storyline is a familiar one, even if the reluctant criminal is usually male. Unless you're approaching the film as a poverty tourist, you'll find nothing remarkable about the characters or their situation, but that may be part of the point. DaCosta is invested in reminding us how ordinary all this is and in addressing the scale of deprivation affecting the region. The petty criminals who populate the film aren't doing what they do to get rich, just to survive, and for all that some critics have suggested that Ollie ought to be able to think of a better solution, he really doesn't have a lot of options. What she does have is the guts to face up to this and the will to act.

Thompson's forceful, charismatic performance brings life to what could have been a relentlessly grim film, but it also unbalances the drama somewhat. Deb has been broken rather than toughened up by her experiences and although James is good her numb, enervated condition means that it's easy to overlook what's going on with her. The film hinges on the bond between the two but it's something we don't always see, something rooted in the past - there's not enough still on display to explain why Ollie is ready to take such a colossal risk when all that she has ever wanted is the chance to escape from it all.

The performances are really the film's selling point. Although there are some tense individual scenes, overall there's a shortage of energy which perhaps reflects the depression in the area, with even the threat to health and home failing to drive the film forwards as it should. Matt Mitchell's cinematography adds a lot of atmosphere to scenery that a less experienced DoP might have rendered beautiful, and there's some good work from the audio team, but something is missing. Perhaps it's confidence. DaCosta is competent and tries to give her actors a little extra space to do their thing. It's as if something pulls her back from committing to this as fully as she might, as if she's not yet bold enough to stamp her own style on the project. When she gets there, she'll be a force to be reckoned with.

Reviewed on: 26 Jan 2020
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Two estranged sisters are driven to extremes when their mother dies, leaving them with one week to pay back her mortgage.


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