'Little Woods': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

A grim mission enlivened by Thompson's performance.

Rising star Tessa Thompson plays a reluctant drug dealer in Nia DaCosta's debut drama.

A young woman scraping out a living in a North Dakota oil boomtown must make hard choices in Nia DaCosta's Little Woods, risking prison in order to keep her sister and nephew with a roof over their heads. Less relentlessly bleak than Winter's Bone, which along with Frozen River is an obvious inspiration here, the life-on-the-margins drama makes a fine, tense vehicle for Tessa Thompson, who in the last few years has stood out in a variety of genres. She and co-star Lily James (as the sister) will attract needed attention on the fest circuit to this winner of Tribeca's juried Nora Ephron award.

Thompson's Ollie (short for Oleander) was adopted as a child and grew up with Deb (James); when Deb moved out and had a child with now-estranged boyfriend Ian (James Badge Dale), Ollie stuck around to nurse their mother through a long terminal illness. Somewhere in there, she started making trips across the border to obtain pain pills for their mother through Canada's health care system. That well-intentioned felony grew until she was also supplying to strangers, and she was eventually busted.

Now she's near the end of her probation, and nothing says "time to break the law" like hearing your probation officer (Carter, played by Lance Reddick) congratulate you for having only one check-in left before you're officially in the clear. Carter, impressed with Ollie and supportive of her efforts to go straight, has supplied a personal reference for a good job that would take her away from her current environs. Ollie is all ready to make a clean start and let the bank take the family home when she learns that penniless Deb is pregnant.

As DaCosta's script points out (in language that sounds a bit too writerly to come out of Deb's mouth), Ollie is a doer, not a hoper. Knowing Deb and her young son will be homeless if she doesn't help, she arranges to keep foreclosure at bay and give Deb the house; but she's going to need to raise $3,000 in a week. Angry that selling pills is her only option (Thompson balances anxiety and resentment persuasively, mustering fresh-faced optimism when Ollie needs to deal with the straight world), she nevertheless puts a plan into gear, contacting oil-field workers who, at least in some cases, are seeking pills not for recreation but to address injuries the U.S. medical system hasn't fixed. The film's working-class crime story is colored by allusions to public policy well before Deb starts to face her personal realities: Even if they get to keep the house, she can hardly afford to have a child. "Being pregnant costs $8,000?," she asks a clinic's receptionist, incredulously. She's ready to terminate the pregnancy, but the nearest safe abortion is hundreds of miles away and would cost hundreds of dollars she doesn't have.

Things get worse from there, with Ollie continuously having to go one step further over the line to cope with other people's aggression or screw-ups. She's going to have to make another smuggling run to Canada, something she'd promised herself never to do, this time with her loved ones in tow. (As bad as Deb's situation is, does she really not have a friend who could take care of her kid for one night?) Though shot in Central Texas, the Matt Mitchell-lensed action is persuasively remote-feeling, sending these two women on a mission whose success is far from guaranteed. Somebody's making a tremendous amount of money in Ollie's hometown. She'll be doing very well if she can get back to zero.

Production companies: Extra A Productions
Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick, Luke Kirby
Director-screenwriter: Nia DaCosta
Producers: Rachael Fung, Gabrielle Nadig, Tim Headington
Executive producers: Lia Buman, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Fred Berger, Tom Dolby, Tessa Thompson
Director of photography: Matt Mitchell
Production designer: Yvonne Boudreaux
Costume designer: Colin Wilkes
Editor: Catrin Hedstrom
Composer: Brian McOmber
Casting director: Vicky Boone
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (US Narrative Competition)

103 minutes