If you’ve seen Tessa Thompson commandeer the screen in “Dear White People” (2014) or turn a stock girlfriend role into nearly the best part of the movie in “Creed” (2015) or “Sorry to Bother You” (2018), you know she’s capable of just about anything. But a straight dramatic lead? Can Thompson hold the center of a film like “Little Woods,” a deadly serious tale of rural poverty and hard-luck lives?
Don’t be silly. Of course she can.
“Little Woods” also stands as a rock-solid writing-directing debut from Nia DaCosta, of whom we will surely be hearing more (she has been selected by producer Jordan Peele to direct the remake of the 1992 horror film “Candyman”). The horrors in “Little Woods” aren’t of the fantastic Clive Barker variety but, rather, the slow, everyday grind of working-class Americans lost to a fibrillating economy and opioid addiction.
Thompson’s character, Ollie, is actually the most together person in the movie, entirely due to trying: She’s coming to the end of her probation after a prison stay for transporting pills across the Canadian border and is dead set on getting out of her no-hope North Dakota town and starting a new life elsewhere.
Complicating matters is Ollie’s adoptive sister Deb (Lily James), a single mother holding down a waitress job while living with her young son in a trailer in a supermarket parking lot. Deb has another kid on the way and an angry ex-husband (James Badge Dale), first seen badgering Ollie at 1 a.m. for drugs she (says she) doesn’t have. The bank’s about to foreclose on the house in which the two women grew up. Should Ollie sell the last stash she has buried in the woods to set her sister up before she leaves town?
That looming final day of probation provides the movie’s motor of suspense — that and the presence of Bill (Luke Kirby of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”), the violent drug dealer who wants a cut of Ollie’s proceeds. But “Little Woods” is more closely focused on capturing a portrait of an America knocked back on its heels, where oil riggers work injured and self-medicated because a broken health care system has locked them out, and where an uninsured Deb learns it costs $8,000 just to have a baby.
The character’s other options are driving hundreds of miles to the nearest US abortion clinic, which will require more money than Deb has; a back-alley abortionist recommended by a stripper; or a sneak across the Canadian border with a forged national health card. The movie presents her choices as bad, worse, and worst, and it says this is the lay of the land for too many people.
Under DaCosta’s sure, steady direction, “Little Woods” belongs with movies like “Frozen River” (2008), “Winter’s Bone” (2010), “Wind River” (2017), and last year’s “Leave No Trace” — dramas about overlooked communities that ache with empathetic detail. The movie steers clear of polemics, though, and puts its faith in its characters, specifically the exhausted, unbreakable bond of sisterhood that unites these siblings.
Ollie is the stronger and Deb is the screw-up; that counts for little in a life that seems stacked against working men and women in general and women specifically. Aside from Ollie’s quietly supportive parole officer (Lance Reddick) and a state cop (Max Hartman) torn between sympathy and duty, the men in “Little Woods” are a hopeless lot: little boys who grew up to learn that none of the promises ever come true and who either blunt the pain with Oxy or take it out on their women.
So the sisters have each other, and it’s almost enough. There’s a scene in “Little Woods,” after a turn of luck has cut the legs out from under Ollie’s plans once more, in which Thompson briefly lets despair claim her character. The actress has established a powerful, seemingly invincible onscreen presence, so when the sobs come up in Ollie’s throat, the wrench feels genuinely frightening, like a wave pulling down a ship. DaCosta has made a suspense film in which we root for the heroes to break the law, and then she sends us home to ponder all the reasons they need to.
Written and directed by Nia DaCosta. Starring Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby. At Kendall Square. 105 minutes. R (language and some drug material).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.