Festival darling Little Woods arrived on Hulu this past week. The film features stars Tessa Thompson and Lily James. Should it be on your watch list?
Little Woods is a film that you will see on many “best of” lists this year. The film has two stars at the forefront in Tessa Thompson and Lily James and is the debut feature of director/writer Nia DaCosta.
Little Woods is a small-town drama set in Northern North Dakota that wants you to feel the suffering of its leads and the difficult decisions that they have to make.
Thompson and James play two sisters who have chosen different paths to survive and Thompson puts on a performance that could land her an Oscar nomination. Little Woods reminded me of Manchester by the Sea (a film that took home two Oscars and was nominated for a total of 6) in many ways, including the one that left me upset by the way it ends.
At the start of Little Woods, we are made aware that Tessa Thompson’s character, Ollie, is trying to literally bury a part of her past. If you watched the trailer you know what that past is but if not you’re made aware early into the film.
Ollie is the sister who stayed home and took care of mom when she was sick. Things were tight financially, so this meant that she was taking trips across the border into Canada to save money on medication. This also meant that, in order to make additional money, Ollie got involved with smuggling and dealing pain pills.
Mom has since passed and Ollie is trying to get her life back on track as the home is about to go into default and she’s close to finishing her probation. The world is already trying to pull her back into selling the pills but she’s trying to get back on the straight and narrow.
Meanwhile, Lily James’s character Deb is a single mother who does not appear to be managing life very well herself. She has a job but she and her son are living in an RV that is parked illegally. They’re also hanging on by a thread and when she finds out she’s pregnant again she knows that this could really push things over the edge in a bad way. That’s when she goes to her sister, and there is clearly tension there but she knows she won’t leave her hanging.
Now there are decisions to be made by both women.
A story of the times
Little Woods does an amazing job of highlighting many of the major issues that face Americans. It almost plays like an ad for Medicare for All, an attack on the pharmaceutical industry, and an indictment of the states that have made abortions difficult to come by. All of which are at the forefront of the political discourse currently.
Because you can get the same medicine at a much cheaper price in Canada, Ollie had to leave the country to try to get the medicine her mother desperately needed. Because of the cost of her mother’s medical expenses (which drives 500,000 people into bankruptcy annually in this country) she had to turn to selling pills. Then, her sister gets pregnant when she can’t afford to bring another child into this world, and there are no facilities where she can get an abortion within a reasonable distance at a reasonable price.
At one point in the film, Deb, when questioned about the abortion, says that it would cost her $8,000 dollars to have the baby. She did the math and between appointments and medication she’d need $8,000 dollars. She doesn’t have that money so she feels that abortion is the only way.
On the other side, besides making these points, Ollie dealing prescription pain killers also touches on the issue surrounding the opioid epidemic. People are willing to buy pills from her in large quantities for many reasons. One guy comes because he actually does have pain and he needs to be able to go to work and power through it.
At one point, she goes to the rodeo because the riders need the pills for the abuse their bodies take. It’s an interesting approach to this aspect of it and why I’m not highlighting it too much. There are more important aspects of the crisis that aren’t touched in the movie and that’s fine (the film didn’t need to cover all of the issues), but it is important that it’s mentioned.
I mentioned in the intro that I believed Thompson could earn an Oscar nomination for her role, and I strongly believe she could. I struggle to think of any performances this year that definitely would push her out. Throughout the movie, you can see her growing desperation but also her growing resolve to help her sister and gain control of her own life.
You spend the majority of the movie wanting her to get everything she wants, mainly to get away from this area. There are many tense moments that Ollie has to navigate and she does so with the strength of a woman who has seen all of the worst parts of life and isn’t going to be surprised by much anymore. It was a truly powerful performance and if you hadn’t been taking Thompson seriously as an actress before, you should be now.
I truly hope that she gets the awards season push she deserves for her work here and hope to see her name when the nominations are announced.
Currently on Rotten Tomatoes, critics love Little Woods while the general audience does not. This does not surprise me at all. The way the film ends will leave the general audience disappointed and wanting more. It’s the same way I felt at the end of Manchester by the Sea. I recall the rest of the audience looking around for confirmation that the movie was actually over as the credits began to roll. That’s not a feeling most viewers are going to want to have.
On the critical side, Little Woods and Manchester by the Sea play as masterpiece cinema. They are both movies about the human condition and those lives continue past the end that we are given. We get some semblance of a conclusion or we can assume what happens next but they don’t hand it to us. For that reason, I hesitate to recommend Little Woods. If you watch this movie, go in to enjoy the ride and Tessa Thompson’s performance.
Little Woods is currently streaming on Hulu.