Little Woods exists in its own world. It's being billed as a modern Western, which doesn't quite fit, though there's plenty of barren prairie to look out on. It's not a horror movie or a thriller, but a feeling of unease is palpable in every scene. But it's definitely an "America in 2019" movie, one that succeeds without overdoing it. Its characters are in dire straits, but there are no grand political statements about how they got there. These people just need to survive.
Tessa Thompson gives her best performance to date as Ollie, a North Dakota woman on her last week of probation. She used to have a lucrative business selling pain pills she smuggled in from Canada, but has let that business go under, lest she get caught again and go to prison. In the meantime, her adopted mother has died, her house is being foreclosed on, and her sister Deb (Lily James) and nephew Johnny have shown up on her doorstep with nowhere else to go.
Little Woods has a lot in common with downer movies of the past, including Frozen River and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But the film has a remarkable sense of place (all the more impressive considering it was shot in Texas), and feels incredibly authentic. This was part of my problem with the endlessly praised Hell or High Water. While it succeeded as a genre film, its attempts to be a profound movie about post-recession America felt tacked on. "Bank's been robbin' me for 30 years" is a line only a person in a movie would say. The added layer of Little Woods is that its characters are putting on faces for just about everyone. They're rarely authentic with anyone.
Ollie and Deb are desperate to keep their mom's house from being foreclosed, but they're forced to get creative with their schemes to come up with enough cash to save their childhood home. There's also the added danger just by virtue of them being women. Spending time with drug dealers and forgers is dicey to begin with. In fact, every encounter with men is fraught with peril, as any one of them – whether intending to or not – could ruin or end their lives.
Little Woods is a humane film, one that's non-judgmental, even on the most sensitive of topics. Its horrors come from the everyday challenges of millions of marginalized people.