Nothing extraordinary happens in “Little Woods,” a drama about two sisters whose economic desperation propels them down a dangerous path. But the feature debut from filmmaker Nia DaCosta (opening Friday at the Clay) delivers the emotional goods, regardless, and doubles as a vivid look at American rural hardship.
DaCosta has described the movie as a modern Western, and it also brings to mind “Frozen River” and “Winter’s Bone” — dramas that combine a tense adventure with sad social content. We get destitute women, deadbeat men, criminal elements, and addiction (an opioid factor, relevantly, this time). DaCosta’s title refers to the setting, a North Dakota oil boomtown.
Ollie (Tessa Thompson) was busted for smuggling painkilling drugs, acquired through Canada’s health-care system, over the border. She supplied the meds to her terminally ill mother and also sold them to addicts. She’s on probation and works at low-paying jobs, like selling coffee and snacks.
Deb (Lily James), Ollie’s estranged sister, lives with her young son in an illegally parked trailer and works as a waitress. She discovers she’s pregnant but can’t afford to have another child.
The news of Deb’s pregnancy and possible impending homelessness complicates Ollie’s plans to pursue a job prospect made possible by supportive probation officer Carter (Lance Reddick) — an opportunity that would take her away from dreary Little Woods.
Ollie determines to retain possession of her now-dead mother’s house, so that Deb will have a place to live. Owing the bank a hefty sum, she begins selling drugs again.
A risky journey ensues, with Ollie, abortion-seeking Deb, and Deb’s little boy aboard.
Encounters with sleazy criminals and close calls with the law provide suspense.
DaCosta delivers nothing remarkably original or surprising as the sisters’ journey proceeds. The plot is rather standard.
Still, the movie impresses with its moving sister story and bleak landscapes of rural middle America. DaCosta powerfully condemns the U.S. system for neglecting to provide people in need with crucial services, especially affordable, accessible health care. She provides adequate thrills.
The characters, meanwhile, contain complexity. Even the less desirable ones — Deb’s drunken deadbeat ex Ian (James Badge Dale), Ollie’s menacing rival dealer Bill (Luke Kirby) — have decent aspects.
What holds this drama together is the Ollie-Deb relationship. Wisely, DaCosta never abandons her grip on it, and she never presents it sentimentally.
Subtly but effectively, Thompson conveys the numerous emotions Ollie is experiencing; viewers can feel her constant anxiety.
Thompson’s scenes with James, who’s also impressive, make it clear that these sisters, never mind their tendency to argue, share a meaningful bond.
It may sound cliched to say we root for these women, but indeed we do, deep down.
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, James Badge Dale, Luke Kirby
Written and directed by: Nia DaCosta
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes