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Lily James and Tessa Thompson are forced to solve their financial problems illegally in Little Woods. Photo by Darcy Heusel

A black woman walks down the street and watches a car with a law enforcement insignia pass by her in the other direction. She tries to look cool, but it doesn’t work. The car stops and makes a three-point turn, and the woman breaks into a run because she knows the car is coming after her. This could be the opening scene from a generic urban thriller, except that Little Woods is the furthest thing from urban. That street the woman is walking down isn’t in L.A. or Chicago or Atlanta but rather a more-desolate-than-usual stretch of rural North Dakota. If you missed this gripping wintry drama when it played at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth this past spring, you are in luck, because it’s at the newly opened Grand Berry Theater in the Foundry District starting this week.

Tessa Thompson plays the aforementioned black woman, Oleander “Ollie” Hale, who scrapes a living selling food and coffee out of her truck to the oil workers on the shale. She had been running a burgeoning business buying prescription drugs cheap in Canada and then smuggling them back stateside, but she was caught illegally crossing the border. Though she received only probation because she managed to hide the drugs before her arrest, it’s still a major imposition keeping her from a legitimate job in Washington state. Her late mother’s house is about to be foreclosed on unless she pays $3,000 on the mortgage, and she wants to leave the house to her estranged sister Deb (Lily James), a former stripper and recovering addict who’s living illegally out of a trailer with her young son. Deb’s pregnant again, and simply seeing the pregnancy to term will cost her at least $8,000 that she doesn’t have. For Ollie to keep the house and pay for Deb’s abortion, she must retrieve the drugs she hid and go back to selling. She has eight days left on her probation.

This is the first feature by writer-director Nia DaCosta, who does this thing up in an unfussy style that allows the mess of these sisters’ lives to come through. The film may not look impressive, but I am impressed by how DaCosta introduces complications into this already complicated story without straining for effect. Ollie is about to interview for a job when she’s physically assaulted by Bill (Luke Kirby), the local dealer who just happens to be the father of Deb’s child and who’s none too pleased about hearing that she’s selling to his customers. More harrowing is what transpires when Deb goes to buy a fake Canadian ID to have her abortion, only to discover that the guys selling it to her want additional payment and not in cash. Clearly DaCosta has seen Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, and if this movie only occasionally approaches the hellish power of that Romanian masterpiece, that’s still better than most films do.

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The real source of tension in this thriller is the naked desperation in the eyes of these two actresses, who indeed look uncannily alike. (You may recall that James provided Thompson’s “white voice” in Sorry to Bother You.) James is no slouch here, but this is fully Thompson’s show. Simply from the way she holds herself, you can feel her weariness with the cold and solitude of her surroundings and the ever-present need to look over her shoulder. By rights, we should detest Ollie for profiting off the opioid epidemic — she readily finds buyers for her painkillers among the riders at rodeos — but Thompson shows us someone who’s past ready to be done with this life and has fallen back into it because there are no other options. You feel Ollie’s shame, too, when she sits in an office while her probation officer (Lance Reddick) tells her how proud he is that she’s straightened herself out.

This small 36-year-old actress from a musical family has a number of traits reminiscent of old-school Hollywood stars, with her soft beauty, silky voice, and delicate grace that can transition easily into swagger — who can forget her as a corporate suit laying down the law to Anthony Hopkins on TV’s Westworld? Her range encompasses the bougie social agitator from Dear White People and the broken self-mutilating scientist in Annihilation, and her role here is worlds away from either of those. Yet she’s also something those old stars weren’t allowed to be: openly gay, and she’s striking a blow for LGBT rep now that her character from Thor: Ragnarok has been revealed as similarly gay. She’s in a position to accomplish things no other actor could do, if she’s interested. She seems interested. 

Little Woods

Starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James. Written and directed by Nia DaCosta. Rated R.

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