What’s it like living strapped in America? Little Woods, an uneven but compelling feature debut from writer-director Nia DaCosta, takes you right into the trenches. Things are booming in the remote town of Little Woods, North Dakota, as long as you’re in the oil business. But if you’re Ollie (Tessa Thompson), out on probation after doing time for smuggling drugs in from Canada, all you feel is the agony of having your options squeezed. She can barely hold onto the house where she cared for her now-deceased mother. The OxyContin pain pills she obtained from Canada’s health care system eased mom’s burden. And Ollie’s as well when she starting selling the black-market opioids around town just to get by.
Now Ollie is determined to go straight with a job offer and the support of her probation officer, Carter (Lance Riddick). But there’s a catch — there’s always a catch. Ollie’s sister Deb (the excellent Lily James) is back in town; this time with the bastard son she had with no-account drunk Ian (James Badge Dale), And Deb is pregnant again with nowhere to live and in need of an abortion. With the bank threatening foreclose if they can’t pony up $3000 in a week, drastic measures are needed. So good sister Ollie, a person of color who was adopted by Deb’s mother, gets pulled back in, thinking one last score will set things straight.
It’s a hoary plot vice, but it’s all DaCosta has to power the thriller side of her narrative as Ollie, Deb and her son cross the border to scam enough cash for a fresh start. The tension is undeniable. DaCosta, working from a template established by such earlier, better films from female directors as Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone and Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, creates an atmosphere that — with invaluable help of cinematographer Matt Mitchell — establishes what it’s like to live on the poverty line while surrounded by corporate wealth.
Still, the film’s most powerful asset is Thompson (Sorry to Bother You, Thor: Ragnarok) in a performance that cuts through the script’s cliches to find the heart of a character that reflects the plight of a woman alone in a man’s world. Sexual predators and a threatening local drug dealer (Luke Kirby) are nothing compared to the pressures applied by economic instability and the American healthcare system. Little Woods can be plodding, humorless and hobbled by trying to cram too much in. But its ambitions, with Thompson putting a human face on urgent contemporary issues, deserve the highest praise.