Tessa Thompson is taking the world by storm. She broke into the mainstream in 2014 when she appeared in the Oscar-nominated “Selma” and then quickly began to make more of a name for herself, starring in Ryan Coogler’s “Rocky” spinoff “Creed” the following year. She has gone on to star in “Sorry to Bother You,” “Annihilation,” HBO’s “Westworld” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” After taking on film after film that seem to be rooted in common progressive themes, Thompson has quickly become an icon online. She has become a prominent role model and figure for queer women of color in pop culture.
On top of her raw acting ability, Thompson seems to have an eye for picking solid projects and working closely with big names who are bucking many of the norms in Hollywood like Boots Riley and Coogler. Now, she has taken her talents to Nia DaCosta’s directorial debut, “Little Woods,” starring alongside Lily James (“Baby Driver,” “Mama Mia”) as two sisters attempting to reconcile their mother’s death and financial woes.
Thompson plays Ollie, a woman who is about to finish parole following her arrest for being caught illegally crossing the US-Canadian border to smuggle cheap pharmaceutical drugs for her adoptive mother and other people struggling to pay medical bills in their small town of Little Woods, North Dakota. James stars as Deb, Ollie’s sister and mother to a son, Johnny, played by Charlie Ray Reid. Deb is struggling with her past and her complicated relationship with Johnny’s father, Ian, played by James Badge Dale (“24,” “13 Hours”). Things go awry when Ollie comes under threat of eviction from her deceased mother’s home and Deb finds out she’s pregnant. Ollie must now decide whether or not to risk her own potential for a new life to make some money to help Deb before she leaves to start her new life.
Thompson and Lily’s performances are the standouts of the film. The narrative centers on their dynamic and relationship, and over the course of the film, I found myself deeply believing that relationship. Despite a few infrequent shortcomings of the script, their performances brought the struggles that their characters faced to life . Though the writing was generally solid throughout, a few moments of dialogue seemed to feel off in their delivery. That being said, I was often so gripped by the narrative that these moments didn’t distract too much.
The film does an excellent job of building up the two protagonists as these resilient but somewhat isolated and struggling characters. The dark color palette and close-up camera work gave a feeling of intimacy, loneliness and loss that permeated the film. It was gripping, dark and intense exactly when it needed to be but had moments of sincerity and warmth when needed. The story accurately depicted the intensity and fear that women forced into these positions while dealing with harmful and intimidating men can feel. These white-knuckled moments stood out, and I found my eyes glued to the screen, unable to look away and anxious that these characters would be forced to sink even lower.
Though the themes and script are dower and dreary, much of the soundtrack felt somewhat out of place. It was as if it were trying to evoke western tones but didn’t commit enough tonally to really warrant the use of random slivers of rock and country. The story was solid, but the pacing felt slightly off at times, and if it weren’t for the stellar performances and chemistry from Thompson and Lily, it could have taken a negative turn. Luckily, both did an excellent job bringing this story to life. I’m excited to see what Thompson, Lily and DaCosta have in store in the future.