Nia DaCosta’s ‘Little Woods’ the heart of Chicago International Film Festival

The Chicago International Film Festival wraps up today after featuring an excellent 12-day lineup, 30 percent of which was directed by women. Female characters and their creators played a central role in this year’s festival, from documentaries to foreign language features, but it was the following films directed by women that made the most impact.

Written and directed by Nia DaCosta, Little Woods is a subtly topical drama framed within an endearing family narrative. Sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) are grieving the loss of their mother in a North Dakota border town. When Deb learns she’s pregnant with a child she can’t afford to have, they have to work together to keep their family afloat – even if that means Ollie returning to her former job peddling pain pills to locals. A subtle, expertly-constructed story involving poverty, healthcare and reproductive rights, Little Woods is close to perfect because of the human story it tells, first and foremost. Its complex themes and suspenseful narrative come second to the relationship between these women – one of the more realistic on screen depictions of sisters in recent years, thanks in large part to nuanced performances from Thompson and James. Though the story of Little Woods serves as a vehicle for a much bigger conversation, its quality lies in the smaller narrative of Ollie, Deb and their seemingly-dismal surroundings. What could be perceived as political issues or biased points of view in the film are handled well enough that they don’t seem remotely partisan – they’re just human, even when its characters are drowning in tough times. Especially then. “I wanted a sense that these are people just living their lives and probably don’t focus on their hardships all the time,” DaCosta told FF2 Media in April, after Little Woods won the Nora Ephron Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I didn’t want them to seem hopeless.” (5/5)

Writer-director Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had sheds heartbreaking light on one family’s struggle with a mother’s dementia. Boasting an exceptional cast (Blythe Danner, Robert Forster, Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon), Chomko’s feature must be praised for its realism, unexpected humor and heart. It’s clear she has first-hand experience with the debilitating disease because of the care with which she handles every painful lost memory, every moment of letting go. But what makes the film stand out is the relationship between siblings Bridget (Swank) and Nick (Shannon) as they handle the complex and sensitive matter of how to help aging parents. The dynamic between the brother who has been there all along and the sister who shows up after living her life in Los Angeles with a family of her own is painfully relatable, and never schmaltzy or overplayed.  “It seems like it’s something a lot of families have to deal with, that parenting your parent element and with a sibling,” Chomko told FF2 Media at CIFF last week. Forster agreed, elaborating on the importance of the care-taking aspect of What They Had:  “It reminds us of life’s true duty which is to care for others. Everything we do, what we do for a living and what we do to amuse ourselves are superfluous to the job of life which is caring for others,” he said. For anyone who’s ever loved a sick person, felt their pain, felt unsure about what to do next, this powerful, beautiful film will resonate. (4.5/5)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a buzz-worthy drama from director Marielle Heller. Screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener tell the true story of biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), who resorts to selling forged letters from famous writers to pay her rent. She gets caught up in the excitement of selling her words (even though they aren’t technically supposed to be hers), and viewers are taken along for the sometimes-funny, mostly-painful ride as she digs herself in deeper. It’s refreshing to see McCarthy take on a more understated approach to humor, as her embodiment of Israel is mostly dramatic, sometimes desperate, but always interesting to watch. Whether or not she’s a worthy “anti-heroine” is up to the viewer, but Heller gives us reasons to keep caring at every turn. (4/5)

Click here for more CIFF coverage, including our favorite foreign language features, Chicago-set films and interviews with featured directors. 

Photos courtesy of Chicago International Film Festival. (Top: James and Thompson in Little Woods; Bottom: Danner and Swank in What They Had.)

© Brigid K. Presecky and Georgiana E. Presecky (10/21/18)

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