Little Woods Review: Strong performances and effort outweigh little payoff
Writer/director Nia DaCosta crafts an interesting, character-driven narrative that beautifully captures the film’s North Dakota landscape and boasts two strong performances from Tessa Thompson and Lily James.
The film follows Ollie (Thompson) as she attempts to leave her drug dealing ways behind in order to leave her small North Dakota town, Little Woods. Things become complicated, though, as her deceased adoptive mother’s house is about to be foreclosed upon and her sister Deb (Lily James) is struggling to take care of her son. When the deadline for the foreclosure becomes incredibly close and Deb unexpectedly becomes pregnant, Ollie must regrettably go back to her illegal habits in order to provide a better life for her and Deb.
It’s impressive to see DaCosta create such a simple and strong narrative that focuses on the struggles of the modern-day Midwest in her feature debut. The cinematography has this dull darkness to it that resembles the tough times Little Woods is facing and the overall mood of the film. Admittedly, the films dull and dreary tone can make for a viewing experience that feels much slower than it actually is. However, DaCosta creates engaging characters with Ollie and Deb that make the experience feel worthwhile.
Thompson’s Ollie was incredibly easy to connect to and understand her plight as the criminal background she tries to leave behind constantly comes back into her life. Her drug dealing past is always confronting her as past “clients” influence her to start dealing again and a past competitor puts her in a tight situation. Thompson really emphasizes Ollie’s growing frustration and inner desire to see everything turn out okay for her family. She rightfully earns every scene she’s in and shows how capable of a lead she can be.
James also puts in a great performance and Deb’s story touches on being a single mother and how people view abortion. Although the film doesn’t really say much about it, it does show the difficulties women like Deb face just for not having insurance. There are even some issues with American healthcare raised as Deb’s lack of insurance causes her to face high fees just for being pregnant and is forced to get an abortion through illegal means. Deb’s story feels real and not glamorized, thanks to James’ performance and DaCosta’s careful direction, and there’re moments in it that did keep me engaged.
Little Wood’s weakness comes from its quick and underwhelming wrap-up and lack of messaging to make the film stick with you. Outside of the performances, Little Woods offers very little to think about and, while not every movie needs to have complex messages behind them, the film could’ve benefited from making me think more about what’s happening in the film. This kind of Mid-Western story is rarely told, especially through women, and, while I can appreciate its simplicity, I couldn’t help myself from craving more from it. Especially with the film’s quick ending that makes the film feel incomplete and I left feeling unsatisfied with where Ollie and Deb’s story ends.
So while it has some moments where the story stumbles and leaves little to be desired, Little Woods definitely shows the acting power of Thompson and James as well as DaCosta’s talent that I’m excited to see in her next project, the remake of Candyman. I think her desire for darker cinematography, character-driven narrative, and capturing location landscape will work just as excellently as it does here.