‘Little Woods’ Film Review: Tessa Thompson and Lily James Play Survivors in Bleak Modern Times

Writer-director Nia DaCosta isn’t afraid to take audiences to a state of emotional helplessness

Last Updated: April 18, 2019 @ 12:08 PM

There are some films that provoke myriad thoughts and emotions that stay with you long after you’ve seen the film. Then there are other movies like “Little Woods” that leave you almost completely empty.

That’s not to say that writer-director Nia DaCosta’s latest isn’t good; it’s just cold and merciless, which is compounded by Matt Mitchell’s desolate cinematography capturing a frigid Midwest town. The movie centers on a pair of sisters, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) who are down on their luck. Their mom just passed away. They are perennially short on funds. They’re about to lose their mother’s home. Oh, and Deb just found she’s pregnant, again. Ollie can’t really help out because she recently completed a jail stint after getting busted for selling their mom’s prescription drugs. She’s only got a few more days left of her parole and doesn’t have two pennies to rub together.

To say times are rough for the sisters would be an understatement, which makes the film relentlessly bleak. But it also makes you root for them, even when their morals aren’t exactly where you may think they should be. These are two desperate young women in many ways living in the margins of a small town that has all but forgotten them. Deb is already overwhelmed raising her young son alone without adequate support from his deadbeat dad (James Badge Dale as Ian, who’s also the father of Deb’s unborn child). So she decides to have an abortion, but when she gets to the clinic, she has to confront the fact that the hospitals in this town don’t perform abortions, and the nearest facility to do so is over 100 miles away.

She can just have the child (for a cool $8,000, by the way), the nurse says unironically, while completely aware of how the lack of options deprives Deb of the one thing she desires above all else: choice. It’s also yet another example of how Deb and other women in this town are judged and cast aside without any chances for a better life. We see that despair emanate throughout James’ heartbreaking performance of a young mother who’s at the end of her rope and refuses to let go.

This feeling of misery is just the way it is in this unforgiving town, filled with people like Deb and Ollie who have accepted that fate. But the sisters are frustrated because they can’t even get to the level of just-getting-by, like everyone else around them. It’s like their heads are being dunked under water at every turn by people who don’t have much more than they do. Deb is struggling merely to have the right to make choices about her own body, a basic privilege that underscores how dire things really are for her.

Meanwhile, Ollie just wants to maintain her freedom, but she also needs food and shelter. Again, these bare necessities have eluded both her and her sister. She tries to get by with a menial job delivering food and supplies to the local (mostly male) workers in town, but she can still barely survive. As time wears on, and as the “Don’t mess up” warnings from Ollie’s parole officer Carter (Lance Reddick, “John Wick: Chapter 2”) persist, you can probably guess that Ollie is going to wind up back in the street earning money the only way she knows how: selling drugs.

Is it the right thing to do? Does it make her a bad person? Is it worth the risk? None of this matters as Ollie’s mortality is at stake, making questions of morality and redemption moot. Through Thompson’s compassionate performance, we can see Ollie even grapple with these questions as she struggles to sit through a job interview Carter sets up, while her mind wanders to the crumpled cash and scattered pill boxes in her mother’s beat-up home and the seedy competitors on the streets who are watching her every move.

In “Little Woods,” we see women who need and deserve to survive, by any means possible. What’s even more poignant in this story is that the sisters save themselves. Never mind the fact that there is no one else willing to do so; it’s that they don’t give up, despite despite the many obstacles they face. “Your choices are only as good as your options are,” Ollie says in the film, which tells you everything you need to know about her and Deb’s limited parameters. With nearly broken spirits, they know they can only go so far. But they try, and that’s what matters.

At its core, “Little Woods” is a film that is grounded in reality, highlighting a complicated sisterhood and the perseverance of two flawed women facing life-or-death circumstances. Because DaCosta centers Deb and Ollie’s stories in a landscape where there is little difference between the haves and the have-nots, and everyone is scrambling at the bottom, she exposes humanity at its most bitter and ugly. It’s the reason why the film fails to provoke a strong emotion from the audience other than a heavy sense of hopelessness. But that’s also what makes it so interesting. It doesn’t bother to coddle.