"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Little Woods

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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 25th, 2020 at 11:59 am and is filed under Crime, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

22 Responses to “Little Woods”

  1. Inspector Hammer Boudreax

    June 25th, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    From an American, but not Washingtonian perspective, I feel like I’ve always been aware of Spokane and if I were talking to an American who hadn’t heard of it, I’d think they were a bit dense, and I wouldn’t feel that about, say, Kennewick or Aberdeen. I guess it’s got about a half million in the metro, which isn’t small. No big league sports teams, which is probably what really raises an area’s profile (Green Bay is a lot smaller than Spokane).

    Still, it’s not big enough for me to be sure if it’s pronounced Spo-can or Spo-cane.

    Anyhow I hadn’t heard of this but I’m going to check it out.

  2. Thomas Caniglia

    June 25th, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    I heard of Spokane about as much as I’ve heard about probably 20 other cities. I actually have been there too, but just to the Air Force Base, which was some kind of freezing desert.

  3. I’m Canadian and was aware of Spokane before Destroyer, I think probably because of Gonzaga and their basketball team.

  4. On Twitter every day somebody has to remind me that Nia DaCosta is the one who directed Candyman and not Jordan Peele.

  5. I actually went to middle and high school in Spokane and my folks still live there, so I’m a regular expert on the place (it’s pronounced Spo-CAN, btw).

    I remember when I first read The Maltese Falcon, there’s a sequence that talks about a character who abandons his life and moves to Spokane, and I was straight up *shocked* that the city was well-known enough to turn up in a book, much less a book from 1929, since we had just moved there and I, in my youthful naivete, assumed it was the smallest, most po-dunk town there ever was (it definitely is not a small town).

  6. I grew up in Utah and I knew of Spokane. But Utah’s not that far away, so make of that what you will. I feel like Spokane is mentioned in pop culture stuff, specifically songs, but can’t remember any off the top of my head. Was it maybe a hub of some kind back in the day? Like a railroad or mining town?

  7. Yeah it was a hub for basically everything back in the day- fur trapping, gold mining, logging, all that kinda thing. There’s also a pretty fair amount of famous folks with connections there, like David Lynch or Jan-Michael Gambill, and it has a little bit of an outsized pop culture footprint, or at least it used to. I remember Reverend Jim on TAXI was from Spokane.

  8. I’d say you all have thoroughly debunked my assumption about Spokane! I guess it must be my Western Washington bias.

  9. Oh, yeah? Well, I still say: “FUCK SPOKANE, BITCHES!!!”

    Okay, just wanted to blow off a little steam, and Spokane was in the crossfire. I’m sure it’s a lovely place.

  10. It’s filled with white supremacists.

  11. Inspector Hammer Boudreax

    June 27th, 2020 at 9:37 am

    You all have given me the flimsiest pretext to pose a diabolical US geography question: What are the two US states that share a border, but have no road between them? Like, you can’t drive a car from one to the other?

  12. I have no idea, but I’m going to guess it’s a body of water on the border.

  13. Yeah I feel like this is some kind of trick question where it’s like Alaska and Hawaii share a border with the Pacific Ocean, or Maine and Alaska share a boarder with Canada. I’m an idiot with geography though, so maybe there’s a big canyon between Oklahoma and Texas that I don’t know about or something.

  14. Inspector Hammer Boudreax

    June 27th, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    Um, I also asked this on Facebook. If you said IL-MI, or MN-MI, we’ll award that to you. But the answer we were looking for involves a river.

  15. Boudreax: No idea. I was thinking Kentucky-Missouri, but looks like there’s a road at Wolf Island.

  16. Inspector Hammer Boudreax

    June 27th, 2020 at 4:33 pm

    Matthew B.: you win by proving the question wrong. Damn river keeps shifting. F’in Wolf Island, either screwing my geography question or making it even better.

    I also used to like to ask people where there were places within a country that were inside another country that lies within another country. The answers were Belgium (Netherlands) and Bangladesh (India). But the Bangladeshis and Indians sorted that out.

  17. Watched this tonight and liked it a lot. It’s one of those movies – kinda like HELL OR HIGH WATER – that reminds you that most crime is not some elaborate heist, it’s just poor people trying to un-fuck their lives for once. I also liked the realistic portrayal of how shit just falls in on you. Ollie’s gearing up to leave, things seem like they’re going OK, and her sister shows up pregnant. One of those “fuck, that’s exactly what I don’t need right now” things that just happen to people, but at the same time you can’t help thinking, “why does this shit always happen to you?” about the other person. (Which happens to the sister more than once in this movie, and is handled really well throughout, I think.)

  18. “most crime is not some elaborate heist, it’s just poor people trying to un-fuck their lives for once.”

    That’s a pretty romantic notion. By far most crime is people fucking up their lives, not un-fucking them.

  19. In reference to my previous post, I got intrigued by the statistics.They are surprisingly hard to find, and often contradictory. But apparently roughly 30-40% of all crime in the USA is done under influence of either alcohol or drugs. And the you have the remaining 60-70%, which is almost without exception “dumb” crime.

    People who actually plan their crime, and do it to achieve some real monetarily gain, is really rare. “Smart” crime is very rare.

  20. Another way of looking at it is that the criminals who get caught are the dumb ones, or, at least, the ones society is most likely to deem Acceptable To Arrest. For instance, did you know the most common form of theft is wage theft? But nobody’s lining up to arrest Starbucks franchisees because they’re doing it the “right” way.

  21. That’s true. I would imagine that tax evasion is very common. A lot of people do it, albeit in a very small way. I’ve certainly been paid small amounts of money where I didn’t pay taxes.

  22. To expand on my above post, Over the 25 years of my working life, there have been some instances where I have been paid $50-$400. Especially in my early years. I think Finnish law would have required me to pay taxes.

    Otherwise I’m a very good taxpayer, as I believe in the Finnish system.

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