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With: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, Lance Reddick, James Badge Dale, Charlie Ray Reid
Written by: Nia DaCosta
Directed by: Nia DaCosta
MPAA Rating: R for language and some drug material
Running Time: 105
Date: 04/18/2019

Little Woods (2019)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Raw Dealer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

An exceptional feature writing and directing debut by Nia DaCosta, this drama has the gift of taking a dreary, pessimistic situation and, through its strong characters, making it touchingly relatable.

In Little Woods, in a dying North Dakota town, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) was arrested for smuggling painkillers to her ailing, adoptive mother, and now has just a few days left on her probation. Her mother has since passed, and she struggles to make ends meet, selling coffee and snacks to local workers. Meanwhile, the bank has threatened to take the house, and her sister, single mother Deb (Lily James), is pregnant.

Needing a lot of cash, fast, she agrees to start selling pills again. Another local drug dealer, Bill (Luke Kirby), finds out and demands a cut of her earnings, but also offers her a big paycheck, if she'll cross the border into Canada and bring back a fresh supply. When Deb's trailer disappears with Ollie's stash and savings inside it, Ollie decides to take the job, even though it breaks her parole.

Little Woods deals with a number of American troubles, from the difficulty of getting timely and affordable health care, to the unfair economy of a town, once rich from fracking, now left with everything overpriced and money scarce. Yet it never deals head-on with any of these things; they're carefully woven into the hard-luck narrative, told so gently — without soap-opera hysterics — that it's difficult not to be moved.

Thompson, in the lead role, is tremendous, having carved out a tough armor for herself, an unending perseverance, but also capable of showing weariness and even hope. (The moment when her small nephew crawls into her lap and asks her to shut her eyes is mistily gorgeous.)

James equals her, even though her character is weaker, more in need of help, but still fully-dimensional. Behind the camera, DaCosta bathes the doleful, cluttered sets in soft, chilly light, capturing a small-town feel and getting to the essence of the emotions of characters that keep getting back up and trying again.

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