Much like last week’s Diane, Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods sees its strong performances and decent yet predictable story hampered by amateurish, anonymous filmmaking.
Steering the narrative is orphaned Ollie (Tessa Thompson, Annihilation), who’s days away from being off parole after being caught trying to traffic opioids. Paired with this positive countdown are the time-sensitive pressures of her house about to be foreclosed and an abortion that her adopted sister Deb (Lily James, Baby Driver) can’t afford, and it’s not difficult to guess what steps Ollie will take to resolve the conflicts.
Though perhaps shooting for an Anywhere, USA relatability, the film’s bleak, ill-defined setting is a frequent distraction. Oil derricks are visible, there’s talk of “the border,” and filming took place in Austin and Taylor, Texas — but the accents are indistinct midwestern and only well into the plot does Canada get a mention, solidifying the national boundary in play and making greater sense of Ollie’s pursuit of a job in Spokane.
Also vague are the film’s various relationships, especially Ollie’s and Deb’s mysteriously fraught dynamic that only hints at why the latter and her young son have been living in a camper instead of with her sister all along — an important detail that one early line of dialogue would have straightened out.
Still, it’s refreshing to have two women as the agents of change, played by actresses as naturalistic and magnetic as Thompson and James. Their exceptional chemistry is especially welcome with such flat supporting male roles as Ollie’s overly kind and supportive parole officer Carter (Lance Reddick, HBO’s The Wire), and James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3) and Luke Kirby (Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) hiding behind beards and gloomy demeanors as one-note drug dealers.
Within DaCosta’s cheap, handheld camerawork, these stock characters collide and spark a fair amount of powerful dramatic moments, occasionally supplemented by simple yet stirring natural scenery that gives Little Woods some much-needed personality.
As such, it’s a fine starter film, enough to warrant curiosity in what DaCosta will do with guidance from Jordan Peele as she directs his Candyman script for a 2020 release.
Grade: B-minus. Rated R. Starts April 26 at Grail Moviehouse