The actress Tessa Thompson emotionally expands “Little Woods,” turning a small movie into something more than its textured parts. She plays Ollie, short for Oleander, a daughter in mourning for a mother who has recently died. Junk clutters the yard of the modest North Dakota house they shared; inside it’s clean and homey, though scattered with the evidence of a brutal illness. Ollie still sleeps on the floor of her mother’s room, clinging to a past — and a caretaker identity — that threatens to become a prison.
Much of the story takes place while Ollie is striving to set her life right. Shortly after the elliptical opener — a time-blurring grabber of a scene that soon finds her racing away from an oncoming truck — the movie settles into the difficult now. Ollie is barely squeezing out a living selling coffee and food to oil workers, which isn’t enough to deal with the foreclosure notice on her door. She’s estranged from her sister, Deb (a miscast Lily James), who has a young boy and troubles of her own. (Ollie was adopted, a detail that’s casually shared.) The sturdiest presence in Ollie’s life is her probation officer (Lance Reddick), a benevolent paternal figure who’s an overly neat script contrivance.
The writer-director Nia DaCosta, making her feature debut, efficiently sets the bleak scene with striking landscapes, a wandering camera and desaturated palette. She also sticks in one too many pretty faces, which stand out amid the area’s ominous desolation, its industrial sites and penumbral rooms, bare trees and gray skies. (The movie was mostly shot in Texas.) These faces can be distracting and would be more so without Ollie, a focal point that holds the center amid the warring personalities, escalating drama and larger injustices. Here, in a region burbling with oil, people grapple with predatory banks as well as inadequate health care that once led Ollie to smuggle drugs from Canada.
DaCosta is better at setting scenes than digging into them. She’s mapped out a realistic, coherent world, complete with casual race relations and everyday complications that get busier once Ollie and Deb reconcile. Deb opens the story further, as does her volcanic ex (James Badge Dale) and a threatening dealer (Luke Kirby). Each sister gets story time, but only Ollie’s consistently holds you, including during the tale’s quotidian lulls. Thompson’s soft, open face — which tenses into watchfulness that can border on panic — conveys much about Ollie, her decency and burdens. Thompson lets you see her character’s struggle, even when the movie simplifies its tough ethical questions.
If some of this sounds familiar it’s because “Little Woods” owes a debt to Debra Granik’s 2010 drama “Winter’s Bone,” which is a fine model. Each movie pivots on a young resilient woman on a journey (inner and outer) that takes her over occasionally forsaken locales while hauling heavy personal baggage, including needy relatives and drug-driven traumas. “Winter’s Bone” is often best remembered as Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough. But what resonates most strongly is Granik’s worldview. She has a feeling for hard people partly shaped by often-unforgiving circumstances, yet she never succumbs to meanness in her telling, an ethic that DaCosta also shares here.
Both “Little Woods” and “Winter’s Bone” exist on a continuum with other regional, independent movies about essentially alone women who navigate a world not altogether of their making, whether they’re scratching out a legal living or breaking the law. Part of what ties together these sometimes very different movies (like Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise” and Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River”) is that by complicating the idea of who gets to be the hero of the story, they also complicate the idea of female sovereignty. In “Little Woods,” men cling to the edges, sometimes viciously and impotently, yet without overwhelming the movie. They’re part of Ollie’s life, but they are also not its point.
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Rated R for drug trafficking, some violence and language. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
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