Little Woods – Big Ideas
Tessa Thompson, Lily James, James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby
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… a microcosm of many feminist themes wrapped in a tense thriller, worth the watch for Thompson’s virtuoso performance.
Last seen as a bad ass space renegade in Avengers: Endgame, and soon to appear in Men in Black: International, Tessa Thompson is a revelation in her portrayal of Oleander, a woman struggling on the edge of poverty in Little Woods. It’s the first feature by New York based writer/director Nia DaCosta whose second film will be Candyman, a reimagining of the popular ‘90s horror film, due for release in 2020.
With compelling cinematography by Matt Mitchell, Little Woods grips you into a forbidding world and keeps you on the edge as Tess and her sister Deb (Lily James) battle for survival. The screenplay was supported by the Sundance institute where DaCosta gained a place in the Screenwriters Lab followed by the Directors Lab.
The location of the town of Little Woods in North Dakota was recreated in Texas and the poetic landscape in the early frames are literal and a metaphor for danger lurking. As an archetypal story of female struggle, this is no fairy tale. The use of sound is effective, alternating between passages of backwoods fiddle music, bold thrash song and strategic silences. The dialogue is naturalistic, though sometimes to the point of inaudible.
From the outset we see the sisters, who are mixed race as well as polar opposite personalities, caretaking men – Ollie to bandage a wound and provide painkillers, Deb as mother to a young boy. DaCosta has cleverly woven a narrative that embraces a catalogue of women’s issues. The sisters have to negotiate a harsh world where men, often disadvantaged and damaged themselves, still have more power to intimidate. Even a supportive man like Tess’s probation officer puts pressure on her with his high expectations and random visits to her home.
It’s a credit to Thompson that she gets us on her side from the intense, compelling start. When we meet her, she is a reformed criminal almost at the end of her probation for drug smuggling. When her sister is in dire need she is tempted to risk everything and re-offend. The story makes much of her being pushed into a corner through need but there’s also a nice admission when she tells her sister the danger isn’t just that she may do it again, but that she likes the rush of power it gives her. And, despite Ollie’s toughness, we come to realise her very human need to be needed.
While Thompson is totally believable as the resourceful, beleaguered Ollie, the casting of her flaky and fragile sister Deb is less sure. Perhaps we know Lily James too well as the refined period heroine in War and Peace and Downton Abbey, or the princess in Cinderella, but while she holds a strong emotional centre, she is rather less convincing as a product of the world we find ourselves in. Perhaps DaCosta made a deliberate choice to take a princess ‘type’ and explore what she becomes under hardship – unstable, susceptible to pimps and users. In this world, fine beauty can only get you pregnant and jobs in the sex industry. While we wonder if Tess will bust probation, we follow Deb’s conflict about being pregnant. Her side of the story illuminates a desperate lack of choices for single women in her position. There’s a pivotal fight between the sisters that is electrifying.
While the film doesn’t flinch in its portrayal of men as parasites and bullies, DaCosta reveals the context, a world where men are also brutalised and exploited. They are not the central characters but rather just people trying to live their lives and do the best they can with their circumstances.
We see rodeo riders and construction workers, and there is a fascinating theme of widespread drug dependency that drives the action. With bodies broken by years of harsh living, and in the grip of a pitiless, money-based medical system, the men’s pain is the weak link in the chain that Ollie can exploit. They are desperate for relief and she can get illegal prescription drugs on her runs across the border. The complication, apart from breaking her probation, is an attack by a local drug dealer when she threatens to infringe on his territory.
Described as a western and with echoes of Thelma and Louise, Little Woods is essentially a microcosm of many feminist themes wrapped in a tense thriller, worth the watch for Thompson’s virtuoso performance. When asked by Collider why she was drawn to the role, she explained, “it was getting to make a story about these two sisters that have to learn how to choose each other again that resonated with me so deeply. Obviously, it’s a film about two women, but I feel like she wrote Ollie, especially, as a character without gender. (She) just felt like a person that has a lot of things to do.”