Little Woods (2018, Nia DaCosta)

It’s impossible to say how Little Woods would play if Lily James weren’t terrible. As is, the film’s a waiting game to see if James will ever have a good scene. Spoiler alert: she doesn’t. She’s so bad I was expecting the production company to be “Lily James Productions.” She lets down writer and director DaCosta and lead Tessa Thompson’s ambitious, searching work every moment, but she also never seems to be trying. It’s a bewilderingly bad performance in a non-vanity project.

Woods is one third character study of Thompson, one-third examination of her and James’s relationship, one-third rural America drug thriller. That second third, the one involving James, ought to be a character study too, but James is so flat it can’t happen. Sometimes it seems like she’s just terrible opposite Thompson, who tries to hold scenes up and sometimes succeeds. Sometimes not, of course.

But James is also bad opposite baby daddy James Badge Dale (who’s fantastic as a mediocre white guy) and baby Charlie Ray Reid. James and Dale have weird scenes together where it’s like James doesn’t know she’s supposed to know Dale even though they’ve got one kid, Reid, and another on the way. Then her scenes with Reid come off as bored babysitter, not a struggling, loving mama bear.

There are a bunch of unresolved plot threads, and they could either be just unresolved plot threads or more James scenes removed because they bring the movie down even more. She can’t handle anything. Not even pouring coffee (she’s a diner waitress).

Meanwhile, Thompson can handle all of it. Even when Woods’s plot details get a little absurd, which James’s acting make worse, Thompson can handle it. She’s fantastic.

The movie opens with Thompson finishing her probation for drug smuggling from Canada. She was bringing over cheap meds for those in need and oxy to sell to the local working addicts. Since probation started, her adopted mom (presumably James’s birth mom, but dead mom doesn’t mean anything in the movie) died, and the bank is foreclosing on the house. All the timeline stuff is unclear; all the ground situation stuff is unclear. DaCosta sometimes goes for moody, but not in the first act, so it’s uneven.

Lance Reddick plays Thompson’s probation officer. He’s very supportive and encouraging; if there’s a story to him and Thompson being the only Black people in the movie, it too got cut. He’s there primarily for tension and exposition dumps. It’s a fine stunt cast.

Just as Thompson’s about to get out of the life for good, rival dealer Luke Kirby asks her to team up—she’s just so much better at dealing than anyone else. But she’s out. Unless James does something silly like get pregnant again because James can’t handle anything by herself.

Things go from bad to worse for Thompson, and everyone has to make some drastic, life-changing decisions. Except Dale, because he disappears sometime during the second act like they cut him dying, but—again—it was probably just another atrocious scene with James.

Really strong direction from DaCosta, who can’t do anything with James’s performance but works great with everyone else. If James’s performance were good, who knows? If it were great—on par with Thompson—it’d be exceptional just to get those two performances together. Except not with James.

Solid, but sometimes too DV photography from Matt Mitchell. Nice editing from Catrin Hedström and music from Brian McOmber and Malcolm Parson.

Little Woods has a fantastic Thompson lead performance and some fine directing, but James lets all the air out of the tires.

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