Writer & Director: Nia DaCosta
Little Woods has been on my list of movies to see since April, when it was briefly in theaters. It’s a small, independent film with a first-time female director, Nia DaCosta, who also wrote the screenplay. I heard good things about it coming out of film festivals, and it also stars Tessa Thompson, who I really liked in Sorry To Bother You. This is all to say that I was primed to like this movie, but halfway through I was ready to turn it off. It was boring, despite having a relatively distinctive story with high stakes. The screenplay felt overwritten and conventional, especially in the second act as complications arose to force the protagonist to make a particular choice. I knew, intellectually, that I was supposed to feel that the main character was backed into a corner, but instead it felt like a narrative slog I had to wade through to get to the third act. And I wasn’t holding out hope that it would even be worth it.
But then, surprisingly, the third act was really suspenseful and nerve-wracking. After feeling like I could predict everything that was going to happen, I wasn’t at all sure how it would end. The cinematography was suddenly a lot more interesting, and there was one arresting wide shot that seemed like it came from a different movie. (And which DaCosta used twice, as a kind of frame.) By the time it was over, I understood why it had gotten such a warm reception at film festivals: a satisfying ending is rare and people will forgive a lot of flaws if you give them a sense of resolution.
Set in North Dakota, Little Woods follows two sisters, Ollie, (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James), who are trying to get their lives together after their mother’s death from cancer. Ollie is on probation for trafficking opiates across the Canadian border and for selling pills to local oil workers. She’s doing odd jobs while on probation and trying to stay out of trouble. Her parole officer (Lance Reddick) encourages her to apply for a job in Spokane, Washington, to get away from her old way of life. At the same time, an old drug contact wants Ollie to do “one last run” over the border. Meanwhile, Deb discovers she is pregnant by a man she doesn’t want to be with. She already has one child, from a previous marriage, and doesn’t want another baby. But, there isn’t anyplace nearby to get an abortion and she doesn’t have the insurance to cover it. The closest clinic is in Canada. You can see where the arrows are pointing.
There’s also a subplot involving Ollie and Deb’s precarious housing situations, but suffice it to say, times are tough. Really tough. So tough, this movie cannot give them one moment of levity or pleasure. They are sisters, but they never goof off. There’s a kid and he never does anything annoying or silly. DaCosta seems so focused on giving a realistic depiction of the opiate crisis, the arbitrary and unfair application of drug laws, and women’s lack of access to birth control and abortion, that many of the early scenes are weighted down with conversations concerning logistics and specific amounts of money owed or received — until the end, where a lot of this exposition is shaken off and the story flows more naturally.
Even though I’m complaining about the heaviness of the themes, I did appreciate the dystopian mood that pervaded the movie. Deb and Ollie are isolated in an area that seems dominated by oil refineries and white male oil workers who are injured or on the verge of injured. No one seems happy or comfortable, and you have the feeling that the sisters, especially Ollie, have to be on their guard all the time. As Deb deals with her pregnancy crisis, there are shades of the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, except it’s real. A woman in Deb’s situation really would have to take certain risks in order get the healthcare she needs.
Many of the issues I’ve mentioned are typical for debuts, especially dramas that want to get across the seriousness of its themes. Sometimes I thought that Little Woods was trying to be a thriller, and other times it seemed to want to be a realistic, unglamorous Western in the vein of Kelly Reichardt. DaCosta didn’t really find her own voice until the end of the movie, and then I wanted more.