“Little Woods” debuted a year ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. NEON, which acquired the distribution rights, is finally releasing the indie drama. The film is set in Little Woods, North Dakota, a town where newcomers in the oil business are enjoying the benefits of the fracking boom, but many of the locals are still suffering economically.
Tessa Thompson plays Ollie. Years of taking care of her sick mother forced Ollie into the illegal drug trade. She got caught smuggling opioids in from Canada. But as the story begins, Ollie’s only one week away from the end of her parole sentence. And she vows for a fresh start. She works several jobs to pay the bills, including serving food and coffee to men working the oil rigs.
Sister Deb (Lily James) has her own issues. She’s a waitress at a local diner who’s living in an abandoned trailer with young son Johnny (nicknamed “Bear”). Johnny’s father is a deadbeat, along with most of the residents of Little Woods we’re introduced to, many of whom are either opioid dealers or addicts — or both.
Deb learns she’s pregnant, and she knows she can’t afford to have the baby. Plus, the bank is about to repossess Ollie’s mother’s house, where she’s been living. So Ollie decides to risk everything for one more big drug score, so she can pocket enough money to make everything right.
“Little Woods” is a grim “criminal with a heart of gold” story. And it has one major problem: First-time writer/director Nia DaCosta’s script is highly dependent on meticulously timed events in order to move the story along and keep things falling into place. Characters make decisions that people in their position wouldn’t make in real life. And when this happens, it can’t help but take you out of the moment.
But there’s a lot of like about “Little Woods”. Thompson and James are very good. As the stakes grow in their lives, so does your interest in the outcome. DaCosta does a nice job matching the helpless desperation of these two sisters and the depressed environment in which they live — both visually and in tone. We feel for these characters and the tiresome, repetitive cycle of despair they’re caught in, even if they brought many of their problems on themselves.
In the end, “Little Woods” is a very watchable movie, led by a breakthrough, starring performance by Thompson. But its narrative structure of convenience over creativity and logic holds it back — more than a little.