' ' Cinema Romantico: Little Woods

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Little Woods

Writer/director Nia DaCosta has said her feature film debut “Little Woods” was intended as a contemporary western, an apt description. Indeed, frequent shots of vast North Dakota skies feel, taken in conjunction with DaCosta’s world-building, less evocative of an expansive horizon and new frontier than end of the world. The film opens with Ollie (Tessa Thompson) meeting her parole officer (Lance Reddick), close to fulfilling her obligations after a short prison stint for smuggling and selling oxycontin, but her mentioning a possible job of Spokane is imbued with the air of a pipe dream. It’s less a tangible prospect then a signifier of her burgeoning individuality in contrast to familial duties, her sister Deb (Lily James) having just become pregnant and their family home set to be repossessed by the bank at week’s end, another idea culled from westerns, pitting the individual against the community. And so even if Ollie yearns to flee, she sticks around, threatening to sink her parole by returning to the oxy trade to scrounge up some suddenly necessary cash.

This convenient confluence of events puts the narrative on a clock, an often effective tool for suspense, though DaCosta counteracts much of this nominal thrill with an overly neat plot where every element slides too obviously into place, where every roadblock can be spied from up ahead, and why as the film winds toward its theoretical smuggling pièce de résistance DaCosta just sort of lets it fade from view to focus on the surrounding social context. The latter suggests Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgian brothers who often use suspenseful scenarios to exert significant ethical and moral pressure on their characters to see how they will react, drilling down to find emotional truth. But the narrative tidying of “Little Woods’” otherwise messy situation, removing any complication from decisions Ollie makes, prevents such emotional truth. What’s more, Ollie is written with little inner life and virtually no dimension, a brief line about the kick she got from dealing drugs forgotten as quickly as it is said, and an idea to which Thompson never plays, preferring straight-forward desperation, rendering her character as something like a stressed-out saint.

That lack of an inner life is extra disappointing because the Yvonne Boudreaux’s production design makes the world of “Little Woods” feel so lived in. Set in one of the many North Dakota boomtowns that have sprung up in the fracking industry’s wake, DaCosta and Boudreaux set several scenes at a strikingly impersonal dormitory where workers who have come from wherever hole up and an early scene shows Ollie selling coffee and breakfast sandwiches out of the back of her truck to fracking workers because food, like everything else, has become overpriced. Money is foremost on the mind in “Little Woods”, and not just in terms of the foreclosure but Deb’s pregnancy too, described not as miraculous but expensive, evoking the incisive line of Stephen Karam’s Pulitzer winning play “The Humans”: “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?”

That question fuels the conclusion, one involving an illegal border crossing and a dangerous delivery, two events that, like elsewhere, are devoid of their inherent tension. It’s unfortunate, rendering the broader points of socialized medicine and a network of women helping other women in a world where men are conspicuously portrayed as unmindful savages as obvious statements rather than the outgrowth of the film’s own drama, muting their effectiveness. There’s a moment when Deb visits an abortion clinic and, trying to pass off a phony Canadian ID, tells the woman at the desk she doesn’t have her social security card. A look passes over the worker’s face that evinces suspicion about this story but empathy for the position that no doubt sprouted from the need to try and sell this story, a delicate middle ground in a mere moment that the movie overall fails to walk, demonstrating how a split-second, everyday decision can take courage and change someone’s life.

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