“Welcome to Hard Times”. That’s the name of a classic Western flick from over fifty years ago. But it could just as well be the title of this new film, which is being touted as a modern-day Western. This may be due mainly to the fact that this is set in the American West because the basic plot owes much more to the classic film noir dramas. As with many examples of that celebrated genre, the protagonist really wants to go straight after doing a “stretch in the joint”. Of course, life on the outside is full of set-backs and plain ole’ bad breaks that can only be cleared up by fast easy cash. And so the lure of crime beckons with one last job, a “big score”. Oh, another couple of things make this story unique. There’s a smuggling trip to the border, though not South. And the two main protagonists are women (not the typical noir females, neither dangerous seductresses nor faithful “good girls”). And the plot hinges on the secret buried beneath LITTLE WOODS.
As the film begins, we see Ollie (Tessa Thompson) dropping a package in a newly dug hole in the said forest as a new day dawns. Walking along the nearby road in the early morning light, she sees a police cruiser slowly passing by. Then it abruptly turns around and ambles toward her. BEEP, the alarm jolts her awake. Ollie shuffles to the kitchen to begin whipping up snacks for the crew working the nearby oil rigs. They appreciate her coffee and burritos, but they hope for something extra from her. We later learn during a check-in with her sympathetic parole officer Carter (Lance Reddick) that Ollie was arrested for selling prescription meds (oxy, valium,etc.) she smuggled in from Canada (hospitals and doctors are miles away with day-long wait times). She’s got one last probation interview in just a couple weeks. But it’s not clear sailing. The house Ollie got from the mother who adopted her is about to be taken by the bank. Her kid sister Deb (Lily James) can’t help. She’s a single mother with an adorable seven-year-ol son Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid) who barely survives working as a waitress at the local bar and grill. The boy’s oil worker pop Ian (James Badge Dale) gives them no financial support, so the two live in a beaten-down RV illegally “planted” in a shopping center parking lot (she tosses the towing warnings that they stick on the windshield). And Deb is pregnant again. The sisters meet with a bank rep who cuts them a deal: half the owed amount, three grand, in the next ten days. Ollie thinks the only option is to dig up the merch in those woods, and move them quickly. this raises the ire of rival dealer Bill (Luke Kirby). And when disaster strikes, the trio (Ollie, Deb, and Johnny) has to make that northward trek one last time.
Thompson adds her tough, but sympathetic portrayal of Ollie to her impressive list of roles as she easily goes from “indie” work (this and SORRY TO BOTHER YOU) and the big studio flicks (the CREED series and Valkyrie at Marvel). She shows a strong, but flawed woman, one who has been shouldering the burden for so many for so long, that she can do little for her self. Thompson shows us this in her expressive eyes: the sadness, the disappointment, and the constant fatigue as she tries to stay a step ahead of the forces that would take everything from her. Ollie may be down, but she rises to fight once more, if not for herself then for the only family she has left, sister Deb and nephew Johnny. James, usually seen in period pieces like DARKEST HOUR (she was CINDERELLA, for goodness sake), is a stunner as the scrappy, emotionally battered single mom. She has much of the same feisty strength as her big sis, but is in a constant battle with her insecurities, needing to draw on Ollie’s confidence. James shows her near collapse into despair, then her agonizing struggle to pull herself out of the pit of hopelessness bolstered by her son and sister’s love. The men definitely take a back seat to this compelling duo, but their characters are strikingly different. The antagonists are Dale’s surly manipulative deadbeat dad Ian, who becomes Ollie’s reluctant “go-between”, and Kirby as the intimidating drug competitor who threatens Ollie just minutes after tenderly interacting with his young daughter. But one man sees potential in Ollie. Reddick emotes a father-like gentleness toward her as the tough but fair parole officer who forms a tentative friendship with the jaded Ollie. He’s her “port in the storm”. Ollie may fear getting busted when she’s back “in the game”, but her greatest dread may be seeing the look on his face after she’s let him down.
Director/writer Nia DaCosta, in her feature film debut, has crafted a lean taut look at those every day, barely-getting-by, small-towners that don’t get to be the focus of many films. The sisters push themselves out of their beds (Ollie still sleeps on the floor of her mother’s bedroom months after she’s passed on) and jump on the soul-sucking barely-a-job treadmill to live paycheck-to-paycheck. The lure of dealing is too tempting despite the danger. DaCosta expertly ratchets up the tension as the women skirt detainment and even death. A meeting in the dead of night with a pair of skeevy fake ID makers, getting the “stinkeye” from a leery receptionist, even a casual encounter with a lawman are tense, nail-biting encounters. All these desperate actions are set against a cruel cold North Dakota sky that barely allows the sun to break through. But DaCosta’s confidnet direction and her tough and tender sisters make LITTLE WOODS a most compelling destination.
4 Out of 5
LITTLE WOODS opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre