There’s a certain kind of independent movie that has gone out of vogue, where familiar movie stars play people in poverty desperate for a way out. The success of this sort of movie depends on the authenticity of the specific details of the characters and their plight, and in the honesty the actors bring to those details.
Writer-director Nia DaCosta’s “Little Woods” captures the authenticity and the honesty, thanks to stars Tessa Thompson and Lily James, to create a quietly intense portrait of two sisters at the end of their ropes.
Thompson plays Ollie, who is just over a week away from finishing her parole, for the crime of smuggling meds illegally from Canada to her home town in North Dakota. Some of those meds were for her ailing mother, who has died before the events in DaCosta’s script begins. (The script also mentions Ollie was adopted.) What Ollie didn’t get caught doing was dealing other meds, specifically oxycodone, to the opioid-addicted oil-rig workers who are her neighbors.
James plays Ollie’s sister, Deb, who lives in a trailer with her 8-year-old son, Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid). Deb waits tables at the diner, and nags her irresponsible ex, Ian (James Badge Dale), for occasional child support. Deb has a new problem, though: Ian has gotten her pregnant again, and there’s no way she can afford to have a baby — or afford to travel the hundreds of miles to a clinic to have the pregnancy terminated.
With Ollie’s odd jobs, selling coffee and sandwiches to oil-rig workers, she can’t keep their mom’s house from facing foreclosure. It seems like her only option is to go back to smuggling drugs from Canada and selling them — which would jeopardize her parole, a job opportunity in far-away Spokane, and her safety when the area’s main drug boss, Bill (Luke Kirby), finds out.
DaCosta, who is slated to direct the revival of the “Candyman” horror franchise, digs deep into the desperate lives of these North Dakota strivers. She finds a rich vein of material in the hard relationship between the two sisters, and the difficulties they have faced as their mother’s health declined.
Credit Thompson and James for bringing out the tough emotions from these characters, as they argue over the past but bond together to fight for their future. Their performances, melded to DaCosta’s spare, economical writing and sharp direction, make “Little Woods” a memorable drama.
Opens Friday, April 19, at select theaters, including Tower Theatre (Salt Lake City). Rated R for language and some drug material. Running time: 104 minutes.