'Little Woods' Review: Tessa Thompson Is A Force Of Nature In This Haunting Neo-Western [Tribeca]

The Western has wholly transformed since the days when John Wayne first drew his pistols. No longer is it a glamorous validation of rugged individualism, or a sweeping ode to Americana. No, the times, they are a-changin' — and with it, one of cinema's oldest genres.

Nia DaCosta's haunting directorial debut, Little Woods, is the latest incarnation of the Western, a potent slow-burning thriller that taps into the economic devastation that has wracked middle America for the past few decades. And anchored by two incredible performances by stars Tessa Thompson and Lily JamesLittle Woods becomes an intimate and painfully now film that gives us a glimpse of the evolution of a genre primarily populated by hypermasculine men.

Thompson stars as Ollie, a guarded ex-con who has long moved past her days of illegally running prescription pills over the Canadian border. With the support of her kindly probation officer Carter (Lance Reddick), Ollie finally sees her chance to get a stable job, better her life, and escape her dreary fracking town of Little Woods, North Dakota. But all that is derailed when her terminally ill mother dies, and she is saddled with her home's mortgage and her sister Deb's (James) unplanned pregnancy. Left with only a week to pay off the thousand-dollar mortgage or risk letting her sister become homeless, the Ollie and Deb embark on several ill-advised ventures to get a lot of cash fast. But their options are limited, and Ollie is forced to return to her life of illegally dealing opioids to the desperate oil workers and truckers who trudge through Little Woods.

With the drug-dealing scheme taking center stage, there may be inevitable comparisons to Breaking Bad, but Little Woods has all of the morally gray anti-heroes and none of the glamour of that AMC drama series. Instead, Little Woods is a grim neo-Western that operates like the female response to Hell or High Water. Like David Mackenzie's taut 2016 thriller, there's a silent desperation that saturates the film, DaCosta's camera lingering on the dilapidated buildings and bars, and wide, barren spaces that populate the small town. Little Woods is one of the many forgotten corners of middle America that are the subject of countless think pieces and NPR podcasts these days. But DaCosta paints the town with such an authentic, lived-in touch that the intrusion of real-world crises like the opioid crisis doesn't feel as steeped in politics as it could easily have been.

That's because DaCosta wisely centers the film around the fraught but loving story of Ollie and Deb's sisterhood. The adopted favorite daughter of the family, Ollie shouldered the burdens of caring for their sick mom and cleaning up after Deb's mistakes, including Deb's relationship with her deadbeat ex-boyfriend, Ian (James Badge Dale). But even as their long-simmering resentments come to the surface — ending in one of several explosive fights that offer stunning showcases for Thompson and James — Little Woods makes it clear that there's nothing but love between them. They would take a bullet for each other.

I can't say enough about how phenomenal Thompson and James are. Thompson is a standout, of course, as the tough, street-wise caretaker who is barely hanging together by a string. But James, who apparently has taken to playing winsome, struggling characters named Deborah, gives an impressive performance as the downtrodden screw-up who loves too much. Both of them imbue their characters with a deep, weary complexity, their easy chemistry making Little Woods feel intensely personal. The plot twists you can see coming from a mile away, but thanks to Thompson and James, they don't feel any less devastating.

But Little Woods takes steps to endear you to the supporting characters as well. Whether it's Ian, Deb's deadbeat boyfriend who drunkenly demands to see their son one minute and tearfully tells her "I can be better," the next; or Bill (Luke Kirby), Thompson's violent drug-dealing competition who sweetly spoils his young daughter. All of them are stuck in self-inflicted cycles of violence, alcoholism, self-destruction. The steps that Little Woods takes to show the moral grays of living on the edge of poverty are a little facile, but it works.

I was astonished to learn that Little Woods was DaCosta's directorial debut, the film is directed so confidently and assuredly. Little Woods is a bleak, powerful portrait of middle America that never veers on cloying, and handles difficult current-day issues like opioid abuse and abortion with grace. But most importantly, Little Woods is a tale of two sisters, just trying to get by.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10