Little Woods review Tessa Thompson Lily JamesYear: 2018
Director(s): Nia DaCosta
Writer(s): Nia DaCosta
Region of Origin: USA
Rating: n/a
Color, 105 mins

Synopsis: A woman barely making ends resorts to save her family.

It’s an unsaid truth that countless people slip through the cracks of an imperfect system, forced to find their way no matter the cost. Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods tackles this idea with complexity and empathy. Her assured debut is not another sensationalized portrait of crime or violence, but a grounded tribute to one woman’s resilience and the duty she holds towards her family. Tessa Thompson and Lily James spark up real chemistry on screen, as two sisters who take desperate measures. This is the arrival of a filmmaker who has the message and a voice that makes us want to listen. With her keen eye for realism, DaCosta helps us see the world with new eyes, tearing down stigmas and blasting through stereotypes with urgency.

After getting caught for smuggling painkillers for her now deceased mother (and turning profits with a few side orders), Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is barely making ends meet. Luckily, she’s days away from the end of her probation period, and has applied for an out-of-state job. While things are far from perfect, prospects are looking good. Still, her past isn’t going to let her off that easy. Suddenly, Ollie’s sister, Deb (Lily James), finds herself in a delicate spot just as Ollie is faced with losing her mother’s home. Sent into survival mode, Ollie reluctantly decides to take orders again. She needs to raise 3k in a week to stave off foreclosure and transfer her home to Deb before moving on. It’s a decision that threatens to thwart Ollie’s chance of a new start, even making her a target for some unsavory competition. As things come to a head, Ollie is constantly one step away from losing it all if she doesn’t play things just right.

Anchoring everything through Ollie and Debs’ relationship, DaCosta creates a suffocating space for her protagonists, who are constantly walking on eggshells. Fittingly, the film’s plot feels like a delicate, but deliberate house of cards. It could all crumble at any moment, and carries with it a perpetual sense of dread that never lets up. As a testament to DaCosta, all of this is in service to her focus on character. Every decision is honest and tethered to shatteringly relatable motivations. In turn, Ollie an Debs are as fully formed as the broken world around them. They’ve got timely, real-world problems which are handled narratively with utmost care and respect. Through this, the film immerses us into their headspace. We end up seeing things from their resourcefulness, and above all, their unflinching commitment to one another. It carries the explosive grit and attitude of a modern western, tackling things like women’s health, familial responsibility and the infinitely hard cost of doing the right thing.

Making the film a true character showcase, Tessa Thompson and Lily James are a knockout. Ollie is the film’s centerpiece, giving Thompson a chance to carry the film on her back and bring the stakes to life. Thompson gives the film its realism, with an understated fire that is patient, compassionate and fierce. Without question, Thompson is a force of nature, turning an internal performance wracked with pain and strength into something electric. Though she isn’t as central, James is just as gripping. The film slowly brings her to the fore, allowing James to evolve the character as our perceptions of her change. By the film’s end, she’s turned Deb into someone we can’t help but root for, imparting a bravery that’s hard to shake. Propping up these performances and characters, Lance Reddick, James Badge Dale and Luke Kirby add diverse male perspectives, challenging our heroines in totally different ways.

Little Woods is phenomenal. Its perspective of women finding strength within each other is empowering to experience. DaCosta’s search for humanity in a inhumane world is also wholly affecting. As a thriller, the film sidesteps the genre’s overblown tendencies for a raw, sincere take that stays with us beyond the end. It’s this type of provocative and textured filmmaking that we need more of, making this film something that hits hard, and worth seeking out.

SG