Like any good neo-noir, Little Woods is a film about desperation, and about people whose most life-threatening decisions are the result of financial insecurity. But this movie's hardships are more specific: They stem from the characters' lack of medical care, from homelessness and drug addiction and bankruptcy. It's as much a lean, nerve-jangling crime drama as it is a heartbreaking treatise on the precarious state of life in America's most isolated places.
The story is set in a sleepy North Dakota town, which seems to consist entirely of abandoned industrial sites separated by miles of nothingness. Oil fracking once made the place prosperous, but the boom has died down, and everyone's struggling.
We meet a woman named Ollie (Tessa Thompson), who's in the final days of a probationary period following an arrest. She was caught smuggling opioids across the Canadian border, a scheme necessitated by her own late mother's addiction, which just about everybody else in the town seems to share. She's now attempting to turn her life around: Instead of pills, she sells cheap breakfasts and coffee to the guys in the oil fields, and she's hunting for a job so she can pay off the liens on the family home.
Ollie's sister Deb (Lily James), meanwhile, is in an equally troublesome position. She's just barely scraping by, living with her young son in a makeshift trailer park that has taken over a shuttered big-box store parking lot. She discovers she's pregnant — the father (James Badge Dale) is an alcoholic, and she can't afford to support another kid — and yet there's nowhere she can go to safely get the abortion she wants.
So she turns to Ollie, who reluctantly returns to the forest where she was arrested, and where she left behind a buried stash of pills. And Ollie reluctantly — but perhaps inevitably — returns to the criminal enterprise that originally put her in jeopardy, all while her probation officer (Lance Reddick) breathes down her neck.
Little Woods is the feature debut of writer-director Nia DaCosta, who developed the script through the Sundance Institute. She has described the film as a Western, which is most immediately apparent in its depiction of harsh, unforgiving American landscapes. But she has given the genre a feminist underpinning, particularly in the ways she makes predatory men such an inescapable threat — from the drunks in the local watering hole to the rival opioid dealer to the leering guys selling fake IDs.
We have seen stories like this before, where economic depression inexorably steers people toward a life of crime — screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River) has made that subgenre into something of a cottage industry. But rarely has it been told with this kind of political subtext, and with so little judgement about how its characters get by.
This is the kind of movie that we expect to explode into violence, or to devolve into predictable thriller mechanics. It has its tense moments, but it mostly stays at a low boil. Its most inescapable horrors are the ones that everybody in rural America has no doubt experienced — how one small hardship can build atop another until it's an avalanche of problems, how hopelessness can breed lawlessness, and how most of the crimes these characters commit probably shouldn't be illegal in the first place. ♦