January 16, 2020 – This is a film of high tension about two sisters living on the edge of ruin in the farthest northern reaches of North Dakota. One slip up and they could end up homeless, or in jail. The only thing they have to rely on is their wits and each other.
The film opens with one sister, Oleander “Ollie” Hale (Tessa Thompson of “Men in Black: International”) being caught for drug running, after burying a large stash of illegal prescription drugs in a wooded area (the Little Woods). Her sister, Deb (Lily James of “Cinderella”) is living with her child, Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid) in an abandoned motor home. Deb makes some money working as a waitress, while Ollie washes clothes and sells food, drinks, and sometimes prescription pain killers, to oil field workers from the back of her old pickup truck.
Because of the gas and oil boom in the area, prices are high. Deb discovers she is pregnant by her boyfriend, Ian (played by James Badge Dale of “13 Hours”) but she has no insurance. Neither of them can afford the $8,000 cost of her giving birth to another child that they cannot afford to feed. Ollie is only days away from completing her term of probation on drug charges, but she decides to risk jail by selling drugs again in order to provide a home for her sister. She needs to raise $3,000 in a week to prevent foreclosure on the family home where she lives.
Ollie had planned to take a job out of state and abandon the family home after the recent death of her mother, but her sister's situation causes her to change her mind about allowing the bank to foreclose on the home. Her sister, who has a habit of making bad decisions, needs a place to live, and Ollie can help to provide that, but not through any legal means at her disposal.
Tensions remain high as Ollie and Deb face one crisis after another. Ollie is almost caught holding illegal drugs, and she is threatened by a drug dealer (played by Luke Kirby of “A Dog's Purpose”) for encroaching on his territory. Deb has an even bigger crisis. Both sisters, along with Johnny, end up making a desperate attempt to solve Deb's crisis with an illegal trek across the border into Canada, something that Ollie had vowed never to attempt again.
The theme of this movie is “so close.” Ollie and Deb are so close to having a normal life, with Deb going to college and Ollie landing that out of state job. Ollie is also close to being arrested and going to prison, and Deb is so close to being homeless and losing custody of Johnny. The whole story is on that razor's edge of a good life on one side and despair on the other.
Tessa Thompson, Lily James and James Badge Dale all give strong performances in this film, along with the other actors. The story, by writer and director Nia DaCosta, is compelling, if not entirely believable. The main takeaway is suspense. DaCosta gives us a story where the suspense never lets up. There are so many things that can go wrong for these two sisters at any moment in the film, that tension is always there.
The film's setting (shot in Texas by cinematographer Matt Mitchell) evokes an unforgiving landscape where the residents eke out hardscrabble lives. This is an effective drama, summed up by this line of dialog, “Your choices are only as good as your options are.” This film rates a B.
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