Atlanta Film Festival Review: Little Woods

Score: B+

Director: Nia DaCosta

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Lance Redick, James Badge Dale

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rated: R

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.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.