“Such a force of nature in such a small box,” Deb (Lily James) marvels aloud at one point in Nia DaCosta’s irresistible drama “Little Woods,” referring to the urn that contains her mother’s ashes, but could just as easily be describing the situation that she and her sister Ollie (Tessa Thompson) find themselves in rural North Dakota. Even during an oil boom in the region, the two are surrounded by desperation and try their best not to give into it, though neither has been quite the same since the death of their matriarch who took both of them in as orphans. The grief and their estrangement has become an additional layer of despair on top of lives that appear are never going to take a turn for the better, as Deb waits tables at the local diner and Ollie winds down her parole, selling coffee out of the back of her truck at the oil fields to make ends meet. Yet “Little Woods” is unusually joyful, given such a premise since there’s considerable pleasure in watching Ollie and Deb come up with a plan to pull themselves out of their dire straits and seeing first-time DaCosta deftly maneuver a crackerjack thriller with the precision of fine clockwork.
In fact, time is ticking on the sisters since the bank has recently foreclosed on their family home, leaving just a week to come up with $3000, a princely sum in these parts, to keep the local savings and loan at bay. Retaining the home has become of particular concern to Ollie because in spite of her shaky relationship with Deb, she learns that her sis has recently gotten pregnant by her ne’er do well boyfriend Ian (James Badge Dale) with a second child she can hardly afford — or abort, for that matter — and while she is seven days away from being free and clear of her probation, she sees an opportunity for some quick cash to secure the home for Deb by dipping back into the life that sent her to prison in the first place, running across the northern border to collect prescription pain meds that she can sell back home at a markup.
Thompson is simply marvelous as Ollie, utterly magnetic as you watch the wheels constantly turn in her head and allows for the film to quietly accumulate in power when paired with a screenplay filled with rich dialogue that reaches back generations in references to paint a full portrait of what she’s up against and capable of. But it’s the mark of a great filmmaker that DaCosta knows exactly when to jolt the audience with certain choice moments such as a visually arresting shot of when Deb and Ollie see each other for the first time in the film and an electrifying needle drop of the Dead Weather’s “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)” that draw out the cinema in “Little Woods,” making it practically explode off the screen. Every frame of the film exudes great depth, from Brian McOmber’s exquisitely layered score that embeds beauty into the cacophony he creates with skittish strings and cinematographer Matt Mitchell’s often vibrant lighting and framing that opens up a world that is typically seen as claustrophobic. However, DaCosta’s meticulous work in laying out a socially conscious scenario in such a wildly entertaining way shines through and for a film that strives towards new beginnings, one couldn’t be more excited about the future of this exceptional first-time writer/director.
“Little Woods” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22nd at 4:30 pm, April 24th at 9 pm and April 27th at 3 pm at the Cinepolis Chelsea and April 29th at 4 pm at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park.