“You don’t hope. You do.” That’s how Deb (Lily James) describes her sister, Oleander (Tessa Thompson), during an argument in Nia DaCosta’s wiry drama Little Woods, and it’s not an errant observation. As played by Thompson, Oleander, or Ollie, is a restless, anxious woman, her constant buzz of activity both a necessity — she needs the money — and a form of avoidance. She seems like she’s always running from something; in the film’s opening scene, she dreams about fleeing a pair of headlights on a dark, empty stretch of road. And it’s all taking a toll, both spiritually and physically: One look in Thompson’s eyes and we can see that this woman is exhausted.
It’s not just her. Busted once already for transporting drugs over the Canadian border and now on probation, Ollie is trying to stay clean and find a real job, while making money delivering coffee and food and even clean laundry to workers at nearby drilling stations. The laborers complain to her of aches and pains, and the subtext is clear: Got something for that? Everybody in the small, dead-end world of Little Woods looks depleted, broken, angry. This is not exactly a movie about how the opioid epidemic has ruined communities, but you do see how the opioid epidemic has ruined communities. It’s also provided, at times, a financial lifeline for those desperate to survive.
But Ollie wants to stay legit this time. At home, she lives among the remnants of her recently deceased mom’s lengthy illness; there’s a foreclosure notice on the door and no money in the bank. She also keeps an eye on her irresponsible younger sister (and single mom) Deb, and on Deb’s drunk, violent ex, Ian (James Badge Dale). A local drug dealer (Luke Kirby) wants Ollie to come work for him — she’s got a truck, after all, and knows her way across the nearby border — while also checking to make sure she’s not going into business on her own. Every possible scenario in Ollie’s life, it seems, is strewn with booby traps. And as she jumps from person to person, from setting to setting — from an agonizing check-in with her probation officer to a confrontation with Ian to an argument with Deb to a meeting at the bank — we may wonder if this movie, and this character, is headed anywhere. So, for that matter, might she.
As a story, Little Woods initially has a kind of aimless propulsion. It’s hectic but circular. All that activity isn’t going to make Ollie whole again. DaCosta films with an eye for atmosphere — everything is drab, hazy, gray — and movement. The camera follows behind Ollie as she does her rounds, staying close and only occasionally giving us a sense of the horizon, of a world beyond this dying stretch of the Dakotas.
The story, and the character, do find purpose as things proceed. Deb, who prefers to live with her son in a decrepit but homey trailer, comes to realize she needs her sister’s help. As the siblings grow closer, Ollie’s protective impulses kick into high gear, and Little Woods starts to gain the qualities of a thriller. DaCosta builds the suspense organically; the sisters wind up in a couple of situations that get dangerous, but the menace is mostly suggested, inchoate. So too is the film’s resolution. Little Woods manages to move forward without ever letting us know if there’s really a way out. It’s a testament to the strength of Thompson’s performance, and DaCosta’s control of tone and action, that for all the bleakness of this world, we keep watching. The result is a work that lingers, grimly, in the mind.