Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is in a bind. Days away from the end of her probation (for smuggling medicine over the border from Canada), Ollie wants to leave North Dakota, and make a new life for herself elsewhere, leaving the family home to her ne'er-do-well stepsister Deb (Lily James).
Ollie's plans get derailed by a series of new pressures: the bank is coming for her mother's house and Deb needs an abortion.
As time ticks away, and the obstacles pile on, Ollie finds herself heading back toward her old career. Can she get the money together to save her family? Or will she have to risk her life in another run across the border?
The first time I saw Tessa Thompson was in an episode of Cold Case where she played a lesbian poet in the Depression. I had no idea who she was until Creed when I looked at her filmography and realised she had been around for awhile.
There is something old about Thompson, a sense of hard-won wisdom, that always comes through in her performances. Think back to her un-Adrian-like, no-nonsense performance in Creed, or her role as the only adult in the room in Thor: Ragnarok. I have always wanted to see her play the lead in a noir, and Little Woods is the closest thing to it.
Thompson imbues Ollie with a strong sense of drive and intelligence. Ollie is in a struggle to move mountains, and every aspect of Thompson's performance resonates with the stresses the character is under. At the same time, there is a weariness and wryness to her portrayal that prevent her from coming off a s two-dimensional martyr. Ollie has been through all of this before, and Thompson oscillates between exhaustion, bemusement and terror as she is drawn back into her old ways.
America's healthcare system is the perfect fodder for a noir-like drama like this (Breaking Bad is the prime example), with the context of the Dakota oil fields providing another layer of economic pressure to the characters and their struggles.
There are no good guys and bad guys here. Ollie's past business kept her mother alive, and the workers she previously sold to are either uninsured or so poor they cannot afford time off. The drugs are not cure but a distraction, a way to minimise pain rather than heal it.
This movie feels like a dystopia - the jobs are dangerous, law enforcement is arbitrary and discriminatory, there is no healthcare, and if you are a woman...
Little Woods is a small movie, but it ultimately feels like the perfect encapsulation of the pressures facing ordinary people in present day America. There are no explicit references to the current occupant of the White House, or his policies, but such commentary is unnecessary. Little Woods may be the story of two sisters learning to come back together, but the picture it paints of the inequalities built into the American system is terrifying. The sisters may win or lose their personal battle, but in the grander scheme of things, in a society where every basic necessity comes with a price, it may mean nothing at all.
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