Ollie Hale (Tessa Thompson, ‘Avengers: Endgame’, ‘Creed II’) is 10 days from finishing her probation after being caught illegally crossing the border between North Dakota and Canada. She has sworn never to go back to her old routine of selling illegal prescription drugs (like Oxycontin) to the overworked and frequently injured oil rig workers who make up most of the town of Little Woods, North Dakota. Ollie never enjoyed dealing, but she was good at it, and used the money to support the family as her mother was dying of cancer. Now her mother is gone, and Ollie finally has a chance to leave her hometown behind.
Then her estranged adopted sister, Deb (Lily James, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’) comes to Ollie with a secret: she’s pregnant by her son’s deadbeat father, a greasy ex-con named Ian (James Badge Dale, ‘Only The Brave’). She does not want to have the baby, and couldn’t afford the hospital bills if she did. Not only that, but Deb and her young son are squatting in a tent city in a parking lot, and Ollie and Deb’s mum’s house is going into foreclosure. Ollie manages to negotiate the down payment, but the amount of money needed seems insurmountable to the sisters. Desperate for cash, Ollie finds herself thrust back into a life she thought she’d left behind.
Written and directed by Nia DaCosta in her directorial debut, with a largely female-led crew, ‘Little Woods’ is a film about how poverty is compounded by gender. DaCosta turns the camera towards women in the margins of rural life, who are exhausted by the staggering effort it takes just to survive. The film may be set in the fictional town of Little Woods, but it’s based on the very real lives of women in Williston, North Dakota - one of the American cities where reproductive healthcare is the most difficult to access. ‘Little Woods’ fits into this canon of films about women, by women, often centered around tough female characters on the outskirts of society, like Kelly Reichardt's ‘Wendy and Lucy’ and Agnes Varda’s ‘Vagabond’.
The film’s understated depiction of day-to-day life in working class North Dakota through the eyes of Ollie and Deb engages with a handful of topical issues: there is the treatment of gender, of course, but also the impact of the opioid crisis on small town America (Little Woods is all old factory walls, junked cars, boarded-up houses and crumbling streets). Health care, reproductive rights, and border crossings are also woven in to the story. While Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’ is the current high water mark for backwoods drama, the cinematic touchstones of ‘Little Woods’ are Granik’s earlier ‘Winter’s Bone’ and Courtney Hunt’s border-smuggling crime film, ‘Frozen River’, both female-driven stories that explore the dark underbelly of impoverished towns and the desperation of people who have fallen on harsh economic times.
DaCosta turns the camera towards women in the margins of rural life, who are exhausted by the staggering effort it takes just to survive.
DaCosta has referred to ‘Little Woods’ as a neo-Western (a la Scott Cooper's rust belt elegy 'Out of the Furnace' and Taylor Sheridan's ‘Wind River’) and it's quite an apt description. Westerns often stress the harshness of the wilderness, but here the action is set in an arid, desolate urban landscape instead of a desert or mountain. While Ollie might not be a Calamity Jane-style gunslinger, she's still a hero with a shady past who has to pick up the old tools of her trade (i.e. - dig up a bag of drugs) in order to protect the innocent. Tessa Thompson, in a non-girlfriend, non-supporting character, non-blockbuster, bona fide lead role, has believable chemistry with James and effortlessly carries the film. She turns in a strong portrayal of a woman who might be visibly weary after a lifetime of bad circumstances, but who also possesses indomitable grit and not an iota of self-pity.
‘Little Woods’ is a quietly moving and sensitive study of rural American life that feels far more intentional and precise than most debut films. Ultimately, it’s a love story about two sisters, and the nourishing power of female friendship in the thick of adversity.