Desperate in the Heartland

A sisterly bond and two ‘deftly nuanced performances’ at the heart of this modern-day western

Ends tonight, May 9.Starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James. Directed by Nia DaCosta. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Little Woods, a fine indie drama in a mostly rural setting, is full of small but very welcome surprises. The film has a grassroots brand of social realism going for it, and it navigates a veritable obstacle course of topical issues with an earthy sort of directness and aplomb. Best of all, it has a lived-in sense of character and place, and the story’s complex array of social issues emerges through the characters and their lives, and not the other way around.

In synopsis, Little Woods might sound overloaded with highly fraught issues. The main setting is a small North Dakota town sliding into steep decline after a fracking boom. Drug dealing, abortion, rampant alcoholism, predatory business practices, shadow economies, abject poverty and much else figure prominently in this tale.

But the central characters and key motive forces in all this are a couple of half-sisters whose mother has just died. Ollie (a fine Tessa Thompson), the adopted sister, is nearing the finish of probation for a drug-dealing conviction. Deb (Lily James) is a single mom trying to shed her young son’s deadbeat dad, but also stymied by another pregnancy. In the aftermath of their mother’s death, both are on the verge of homelessness.

What transpires in the midst of their respective crises is the renewal of a sisterly bond, a kind of outlaw sisterhood, in this case. Ollie returns to her drug-dealing schemes (she has a source in Canada, originally developed in order to provide affordable medicine for the dying mother). Paying for a place to live is the initial motive, but soon that gives way to Deb’s hopes of financing a clandestine abortion.

The film’s distributors tout Little Woods as a kind of a western, and while the setting is resolutely contemporary, the genre-tag makes some real sense: the sisters, after all, are good-hearted outlaws, and their ventures outside whatever home they have include wilderness treks, border crossings, and a whole string of small but intense showdowns with male clods, abusive louts, and vaguely menacing authority figures.

In her feature film debut, writer-director Nia DaCosta gets deftly nuanced performances out of her principal players. Thompson is superb in the film’s “hero” role, the multifaceted Ollie. James’ Deb is both silly and sympathetic as she swirls toward some kind of maturity. The “deadbeat dad” (James Badge Dale) has an especially good moment with Deb/James as he plunges toward a piece of his own maturity. Lance Reddick maintains a gentle ambiguity as Ollie’s craftily empathetic parole officer. Even little Charles Ray Reid has a couple of unexpectedly poetic moments as Deb’s son Johnny.