“Little Woods” is a movie that IMDb describes as “a modern Western,” but it’s not. When I hear “Western,” I think cowboys, horses, a black-hat villain, a white-hat sheriff, a posse, a saloon, a gunfight, etc.
“Little Woods” has none of that. It takes place in a modern-day North Dakota town where fracking has changed the economy. The irony is that there’s so much money flowing from the blow-up-the-Earth-and-suck-out-the-natural-gas business, but none of it is helping the locals. In fact, it’s making their lives worse, as everything gets more expensive, from food to real estate.
Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is one of the locals who’s barely keeping it together. She’d been sneaking across the border into Canada to get painkillers for her ailing mother, and had turned that into a lucrative side business working for a local dealer selling opioids she’d gotten up north to some of the men working on the fracking lines. But she had to stop when she was arrested and tells herself — and her probation officer, Carter (Lance Reddick) — that she’ll never do it again. Instead, now that Mom has died, Ollie aches to get out of the upper midwest and start a new life, if she can get a job in Spokane that Carter has helped her line up an interview for.
Unfortunately, there’s a fly in the ointment: Ollie’s sister Deb (Lily James), who has one young son by a guy she’s no longer with, and has just discovered she’s pregnant with another. With no health insurance, Deb can’t afford to have the kid, let alone keep it — but she doesn’t have enough money for an abortion. Even if she did, there’s no place to get one legally in that part of the Dakotas. Deb appeals to Ollie for help, but her sister doesn’t have that kind of cash, either. In fact, she can’t even come up with the payment that will keep the bank from foreclosing on their mother’s house. As much as Ollie yearns to escape, she knows she can’t leave her sister homeless and knocked up, so she has to revert to her old ways to solve the problem.
That makes for a compelling, original story well told by writer/director Nia DaCosta, making her feature film debut. She shows us the desolation of a small town full of desperate people, much as Debra Granik did in “Winter’s Bone.” While that movie helped Jennifer Lawrence become a star, “Little Woods” will hopefully give a nice career boost to Thompson (“Creed,” “Selma”) and James (“Downton Abbey,” “Baby Driver”), who both deliver their best-yet performances. They share a visceral chemistry that draws us into caring about their heartbreaking characters. Reddick (the hotel clerk in the “John Wick” movies) is solid as Carter, as is the rest of the supporting cast.
I loved “Little Woods” when I saw it at the St. Louis International Film Festival in November, and put it on one of my Best Movies Of 2018 lists. As it finally opens in theaters across the country today, I strongly recommend you see it — and ignore the word “Western” in the description.
I give “Little Woods” an 8.5 out of 10.