Nia DaCosta’s feature film debut evokes the hard-scrabble conditions of America’s poor and desperate.
After being busted for selling proscription drugs, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) decides to go straight. Of course, life as a law-abiding citizen has its drawbacks. When Ollie discovers that the bank has accelerated foreclosure proceedings on her late mother’s home, she might have to go back to her old ways.
Ollie’s adopted sister, Deb (Lily James), has problems of her own. Deb’s been living in an RV with her middle-school aged son. It’s not the best place to live, and while she struggles to make ends meet, she discovers that she’s pregnant. And because she has no health insurance, having a baby will break her financially. Plus, her ex, Ian (James Badge Dale), is living in some kind of rehab and is no help. Deb looks to Ollie for answers.
While the narrative suffers from more than a few overly familiar elements, together with some jumps in logic, “Little Woods” works mainly because of the committed performances, notably the work of Thompson. Also, the mood brought forth by the ever colder visuals is spot-on. Cinematographer Matt Mitchell crafts an image that perfectly captures the desperation. And the images gel well with the tension-filled performances.
Writer/director DaCosta’s script combines crime elements with a medical care theme. There is an earthy authenticity to the world explored in “Little Woods” that captures the mundane, but undeniably real moments in down-and-out American’s lives. At one point, Deb visits a clinic and is told the detailed cost of having a baby, something like eight or nine thousand dollars. She elects then to terminate the pregnancy, but that too is costly. And with her sister’s assistance, the two embark on a trip to Canada for the procedure. It’s this sequence that provides some chills and a key emotional moment.
Regardless whether or not everything in “Little Woods” works, the film is well-made and directed. It’s easy to understand what Jordan Peele saw in DaCosta when picking her to direct the upcoming “Candyman” reboot. If she’s able to infuse the ominous tone that she’s created so well in “Little Woods,” we’re in for it in 2020 when Peele’s reimagining of that horror semi-classic hits theaters.