LITTLE WOODS is the debut of writer/director Nia DaCosta, who followed it with the upcoming CANDYMAN (2020), sequel to CANDYMAN (1992). I’m not sure how much they’ll have in common, because this one’s not horror, and it takes place in a rural area, but it’s very good, and raises my expectations for the other one even higher.
Tessa Thompson (CREED) is great as Ollie (short for Oleander), who lives in her late mother’s busted up house in North Dakota and is almost done with her probation. While mom was sick she would go into Canada to get medicine for her, but she also had a whole pill-selling enterprise going, and she got caught at the border.
Now she does stuff like go out to construction sites and sell coffee and sandwiches out of the back of her pickup. People still ask her for Oxy and she explains she doesn’t do that anymore. Everybody still likes her. The local opiate pusher Bill (Luke Kirby, HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION) thinks that makes her a good saleswoman and tries to get her to work for him.
Nah. She’s planning to get out of here. She’s interviewing for a job in Spokane. (To me it seems weird that DESTROYER and this both have people outside of Washington State talking about moving to Spokane like it’s a city everybody knows. Do you guys know it? Maybe you do.) Her parole officer Carter (Lance Reddick, JONAH HEX) has put in a good word for her. He seems to like her, although there are always those nervous moments when he stares her down and she doesn’t know what he thinks about her. Or knows about her. And then he says something nice and she can exhale. For now.
The trouble is when her sister Deb (Lily James, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) shows up at her door. There has clearly been some tension between them, partly because Ollie was left on her own taking care of their mother as she died. Until she got busted Ollie was always the smarter, more capable one. Deb seems like more of a mess, but raising her son Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid) in a trailer in a Walmart parking lot clearly takes some doing. And whatever they’re mad at each other about, they also love each other, and Ollie is clearly excited to see her nephew.
But Deb came for help. She’s pregnant and can’t afford to have another kid. Or to pay for an abortion.
No problem. Ollie’s leaving, she doesn’t need Mom’s house, she doesn’t mind signing it over to Deb. Well, there is one problem with that: it’s about to be foreclosed on if they don’t pay $5,000 pretty soon. Ollie says she’ll take care of it, she’’ll figure something out, and as she’ll later point out, Deb knows what that means. It means she has to risk everything she’s worked toward, go literally dig up the stash of pills she buried out in the woods, and make some quick money.
So it’s a character drama and a crime movie. There are tense, suspenseful scenes that also tear at your heart because her hopes are falling apart: in one, Bill confronts and attacks her in a cafe restroom in the middle of her lunch meeting with a job recruiter; in another Carter shows up to check on her when she’s in the middle of sorting her pill stash. She runs and stuffs them in the closet when she sees him at the door and he gets painfully close to discovering them, all while showing how proud he is that she hasn’t (he thinks) fallen back into doing that stuff.
While there’s a little bit of the procedural crime business, it’s also about general problem solving. She has to juggle the regular work stuff with the last-big-score stuff and the added drama of looking after Deb. But she’s good at it. She can handle it.
It’s a very humane movie, focusing entirely on flawed people without entirely demonizing them. That goes not only for the desperate, law-breaking sisters, or for the painkiller-addicted customers, but also the major male characters who are, at times, threatening to them. Deb’s sometimes-boyfriend Ian (a really superb James Badge Dale, THE DEPARTED, THE GREY, THE LONE RANGER) seems at first like a piece of shit. He’s an absent dad who gets really drunk early on a rare day when he gets to see the kid. He seems to make Deb’s life miserable. But Dale gives him a charming side too – he kind of treats Ollie as a buddy, and he seems to genuinely believe it when he tearfully tells Deb he can straighten out after she tells him she’s pregnant. She doesn’t believe he can, which I think is the correct move, but Dale makes you feel bad for Ian.
Same goes for drug dealer Bill, definitely a bastard and a bad guy. But when Ollie negotiates a temporary partnership with him she shows up at his house and he has a kid and seems to be a normal dad who just happens to do this as his job. And I don’t think that’s an act. It’s just another side of him.
So – I will mark this as a SPOILER because it’s later on – it basically turns into an abortion heist. They go over the border both for a drug pickup and a scheme for Deb to fraudulently use the Canadian healthcare system.
For those of you who don’t want to see politics in movies, why are you reading my reviews? I like discussing the politics in movies, intentional or otherwise. But for what it’s worth this one is really good about not feeling like a preachy “issues” movie even as it makes a strong point. That’s because there’s no hand-wringing about anything, it just plainly illustrates with its premise how simplistic the framing of the abortion debate often is in this country. People talk about having a baby vs. getting an abortion as an either/or moral decision. But even if Deb felt she would be able to have the resources and the capacity to raise a second child, at the moment she can’t even afford the medical cost of giving birth in this country. I’ve read that the number of abortions goes up whenever Republicans are in power, which makes sense because they widen the wealth gap, give huge tax cuts to the super rich and corporations, try to steer whatever’s left toward wars and cops, and take great pride in trying to destroy the health care system and defund education, welfare, unemployment, SNAP, etc. I’m not aware of a movement of people who want to end abortion and therefore fight for a social safety net and health care system that would help the Debs of the world to have more options. Some people see stopping abortion as a religious duty, but they think just having a law that makes it harder and more dangerous is enough to get them off the hook. Sign here and you’re absolved of it like magic. It’s your religion, man, do it how you please, but I’m sure not buying it.
LITTLE WOODS doesn’t say any of that. But it makes me think about it, while operating as a small time crime story. I like that.
Anyway, there’s the drug stuff and the abortion stuff, and this leads to some very tense confrontations with both authorities and criminals. IMPLIED ENDING SPOILER. I won’t give away specifically what happens, but I want to say that my stomach was fairly knotted worrying about Ollie having her life ruined or ended, wanting her to be okay. And I really like that it ends on a touching moment of sisterly love. I feel like I know how a guy would end a movie like this, and I was so happy that I got to see something different.
The IMDb description calls it “a modern Western,” which I didn’t really understand until I found an interview on SAG Indie where DaCosta explains it:
“Not in that there are guns or robberies or whatever, but more that it’s about people who live on a frontier of a certain type in a modern gold rush town – except this is oil and fracking in a very modern sense. It’s really about this woman, this main character you could say is a lone gunslinger, who has to give up her vices to move on with her life and live a better life, but there’s this one person who can bring her back. That’s really how I thought about it in terms of modeling a story and adding some thriller elements to it with the tension of a western, which I really love. That was a whole other genre that I was really drawn to.”
Okay, that makes sense. So it’s a modern western in a less superficial way than it’s a noir (because it’s gloomy and atmospheric and has a law-breaking protagonist trying to get out of trouble), which is how I might’ve tried to categorize it. Anyway it’s hard to classify. It’s a drama with some crime. It’s good. Very good.
I watched this one on Hulu.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.