‘Little woods’: a he-said, she-said film review

Lily James and Tessa Thompson star in “Little Woods,” about two sisters struggling with life-altering decisions in a small North Dakota fracking town..

Lily James and Tessa Thompson star in “Little Woods,” about two sisters struggling with life-altering decisions in a small North Dakota fracking town..


By tom and Marilyn jozwik

Published Oct. 24, 2018

“Little Woods” is part of the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival. Future film festival showings are 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24 (Oriental Theatre West) and 7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27 (Times Cinema).

 SHE: I felt myself almost immediately drawn into the “Little Woods” protagonist Ollie, a taut, riveting performance by Tessa Thompson. Caught in a vicious cycle of poverty in a rural North Dakota fracking town, Ollie, who’s African American and adopted, is tenacious in her attempts to hold her Caucasian family – her sister Deb (Lily James) and her sister's son together. Her mother has just died and the family home will be foreclosed on unless she can quickly come up with cash. Ollie is on parole for selling Oxycontin and is working odd jobs to stay afloat until her sister throws her a curve – Deb pregnant (and single, waitressing and living illegally in a tiny motor home on a parking lot).  

HE: I don’t know if Deb is literally single, or single in the sense of being separated or divorced from the galoot who’s the father of her son and baby to be. Doesn’t much matter. As for Ollie … funny name for a female, but I as well found the performance of her alter ego Thompson very good. And Ollie is laudable despite her series of legal infractions.

SHE: The cards are stacked against all of them, but Ollie will stop at nothing to help her sister. Ollie is a truly admirable character, though her motives seem almost unrealistically altruistic. We don’t know the entire backstory, except she’s often had to bail her sister out of trouble. She has thoughts of leaving, but a sense of duty keeps pulling her back.

HE: Yeah, a little more backstory would’ve been good, I think. Otherwise, not much to criticize in the movie—3 ½ stars (out of four), maybe. Acting was fine, especially Thompson and, in a role very different from Cinderella, James. Story was compellingly realistic—fortunately not hackneyed, and not miraculous, but realistic.

SHE: I thought Thompson’s performance was stellar. She hit all the right notes with a script that says a lot without being preachy. We see in her face everything she’s wrestling with as she decides whether or not to go back to selling drugs, which to her seems to be the only way to get the money to save the house and her family.

In the meantime, Deb has some difficult decisions as she has to decide whether to go through with a pregnancy – which would cost $8,000 (money she doesn’t have) – or get an abortion. The journey to those decisions is thought-provoking with DaCosta’s expert storytelling and gritty setting.

HE: You know, “Little Woods” could’ve devolved rather easily into questionable sex and violence; it did not. And it was not, as you’ve already suggested, a didactic film. Characters were a mixed bag, good and not so good, strong (like Ollie) and weaker (like Deb). It wasn’t too hard to feel empathy for the two women and Deb’s young son and, by extension, for real-life folks forced to scrape like hell to merely get by. Some good music, too. Kudos to female director Nia DaCosta in her feature film debut. Under her figurative baton, Thompson and James proved quite a harmonious pair.