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Non-Review Review: Little Woods

Little Woods is a slow and somber film that never rushes, perhaps because it understands that its characters have no place to go.

There’s a strong central irony built into Little Woods, a story that unfolds against the north-western frontier of Washington State. Ollie lives on what is effectively the edge of the frontier, that great American wilderness. However, manifest destiny has not delivered. The frontier is not as vast as it might seem. Instead, Ollie finds herself trapped on the edges, pressed against the limits of the United States. Little Woods is a story about the boundaries on the extremes of the American Dream. It is no coincidence that Nia DaCosta’s theatrical debut opens and closes at the Canadian border; it is a story of character who are pressed and squeezed against the margins, at the end of everything that they know.

The circumstances Tessa-t her.

There is a compelling stillness to Little Woods, anchored in a fantastic central performance from Tessa Thompson. Little Woods works well in several different modes: as a character study, as a crime drama, as a frontier story. The film is suspenseful when it needs to be, capable of making the audience squirm when it wants them to. However, it is most effective in its relative stillness. Little Woods never feels sensationalist or absurd. It never feels exploitative or stylised. Instead, there is something very effectively grounded and mundane in the portrait that the film traces of those people trapped on the margins. There is something very matter-of-fact about the way in which Little Woods portrays the choices (or, more importantly, the lack of choices) afforded its characters.

Little Woods is an evocative, effective and atmospheric about characters living in a liminal space.

Sister act.

The basic plot of Little Woods is familiar crime movie stuff. Ollie has just been released from prison, arrested at the border for smuggling medicine from Canada to her dying mother. (Ollie’s arrest is depicted in the opening scenes, in a very effective and underplayed sequence that avoids lurid detail or over-elaboration.) Despite her best efforts to go clean, to break from her life as a drug runner and dealer, Ollie inevitably finds herself drawn back to the life by stresses and circumstances. First, the bank threatens to foreclose on a house that nobody in their right mind would want. (“If you could see the house,” she tells the representative, “you’d pay us to keep it.”) Then, her sister Deb becomes pregnant.

Little Woods portrays these realities as inevitabilities, understanding that Ollie and Deb are living lives that are balanced so precariously that just one letter or just one test result can send them into free fall. Little Woods unfolds against the vast north-western winter; there are lots of shots of empty fields and barren trees, of melting snow on asphalt surfaces. Houses and buildings often seem to stand on their own, jutting out from a landscape that feels largely untouched. Little Woods acknowledges the geography of the region. At the same time, DaCosta creates a palpable sense of claustrophobia and anxiety in contrast to those wide open spaces. Little Woods is a particularly ironic, acerbic western; there is so much open space, and yet nowhere to go.

Bordering on absurdity.

There is a resigned acceptance in Little Woods, an understanding that the world is simply the way that it is, and that this creates spirals and desperation. “Being pregnant costs eight thousand dollars?” Deb demands during an early visit to a doctor. In reality, it could be up to one-and-a-half times that if she requires a caesarian section. Little Woods rarely indulges in melodrama, simply accepting that this is how things are, and knowing that hope is no insulation against capricious inevitability. “You don’t hope,” Deb tells Ollie early in the film, and she’s right. In this world, hope is useless. It has no material value. In fact, it might even be dangerous, because it creates a false sense of security.

These moments are often underplayed, and all the more powerful for that. “I can do better,” pleads Ian, the father of the unborn child. It is a tender moment, sweet and sincere. In some ways, it contrasts with the grounded realism of the film to that point. His head in Deb’s lap, Ian is vulnerable. The urge in such a situation would be to hope that Ian could change, to believe that his love for Deb and his unborn child might make a better man. However, Deb understands that hope is ultimately a trap. The scene ends with two simple words from Deb, which are simple and understated. Despite Ian’s assurances that he can do better, Deb simply stating, “You can’t.”

Given Lily James’ character is called “Deb”, is this the stealth Baby Driver sequel that you’ve been waiting for?

Little Woods is also notable as a study of a relatively under-explored social crisis. The opoid epidemic is one of the defining social crises of the twenty-first century, and has been the source (deservedly) of a great deal of press coverage. However, it remains surprisingly underexplored in mainstream cinema, which is strange given that these sorts of stories are typically packaged as mid-tier awards fare; issue-driven movies with intense social relevance, like Requiem for a Dream, Drugstore Cowboy, The Panic in Needle Park, The Basketball Diaries. As such, and given recent trends in American independent cinema, it is surprising that the opoid crisis has not been fodder for more breakout low-budget films.

To be fair, there have been a number of major prestige pieces in recent years focused on drug addiction. Perhaps these films reflect the social anxieties around the opioid epidemic. However, the films that have broken through and which received the biggest pushes – Beautiful Boy from Amazon Studios and Ben is Back from Lionsgate – were stories of comfortably upper middle class families wrestling with the damage wrought by addiction. (Beautiful Boy was also about meth addiction.) Those stories are perfectly valid, and deserve to be told. However, these depictions of addiction tend to belie those communities most profoundly affected by opioid abuse.

Ollie, Ollie, Ollie…

As such, it is strange that Little Woods feels like such an oddity, that the film’s exploration of social and economic anxiety should be so much deeper and richer than other (higher profile) awards-season films dealing with the same themes. Perhaps the closest film in recent memory is Winter’s Bone, which is a comparison that speaks very highly to Little Woods. Even then, it has been almost a decade since Winter’s Bone broke out and became a critical and awards darling, demonstrating just how neglected these communities (and the crises facing them) are in mainstream American cinema. Indeed, it could be argued that Twin Peaks: The Return (of all things) is one of the most popular recent depictions of these challenges facing rural communities.

Little Woods benefits from a strong production. Given the film’s stillness, it relies heavily on a deeply moving performance from Tessa Thompson. Thompson is ably supported by a strong cast around her, including Lily James, James Badge Dale and Lance Reddick. Matt Mitchell’s cinematography ensures that the coldness of the environment bleeds through into the frame. Little Woods might be described as a cold film in the most literal sense of the word, the audience occasionally feeling a shudder or a shiver. Little Woods is put together with an engaging and endearing assurance, a very strong faith in itself. Writer and director Nia DaCosta has a strength of vision that anchors the film and allows all the other elements to cohere.

Putting up a Front(ier)…

Little Woods is a striking accomplishment.

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