Little Woods

LITTLE WOODS. Starring: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, and Lance Reddick. Directed by Nia DaCosta. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 103 min.

This American-Australian drama tells the story of two sisters, whose lives lead them to flaunt the law. It is the debut film of black American, female writer-director, Nia DaCosta.

This is a modern Western-type film that focuses on two women: Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James), who struggle to survive in different ways. Ollie feels for the sick of the once oil-rich town of “Little Woods” in North Dakota, USA, and wants to give people access to health-care she thinks they deserve. When the law finally catches up with Ollie, she is forced to stop peddling prescription drugs, and is jailed. Following internment, she responds to a cry for help from her estranged sister, Deb.

Ollie is on the last days of her probation for smuggling drugs, when Deb’s plea for help comes. Times are hard for both women. Ollie has spent scarce resources on trying to look after her critically-ill (adoptive) mother who has passed away. She is still mourning for her mother, and she finds it virtually impossible to get by. To make things worse, Deb’s life has undergone a dramatic turn for the worst. She has split from a violent husband (James Badge Dale) and needs help to look after herself and her illegitimate son, by a drunken boyfriend. She is also pregnant, and wants an abortion.

Deb has come back to “Little Woods” because there is nothing else she feels she can do, but Ollie has significant problems. She can no longer meet her financial debts by selling coffee and food to the local workers in a dying town, and her bank is threatening to foreclose on the family house by insisting she settle the mortgage. She has received emotional support from a probation officer (Lance Reddick), whom she trusts, and she decides she has to deceive him to survive. To cope, she resolves to embark on one last drug job. Ollie finally makes a decision to cross the border into Canada to get money for what she needs “to do” - medicines in Canada can be obtained cheaply, and she can sell them much more expensively to Americans across the border.

Tessa Thompson’s performance as Ollie is especially dramatically convincing. Sexual predators, and drug dealers (Luke Kirby), who want their “cut”, surround her, and the film confronts a range of contemporary social issues. Ollie tries to grapple with the American healthcare system, the instability of dying communities, and the poverty affecting people forced to live in an environment where nothing seems affordable any longer.

This is a small-town drama about family, money, survival and drugs, that moves at an intense  pace. The film paints Ollie’s situation, and American culture, pessimistically. Its scripting is tight, and its cinematography is memorable in the way it highlights US and Canadian environments, contrasting them with each other. The film also raises multiple questions about abortion, which together with drug issues occupy most of the film’s time.

The film argues strongly that women are the force behind change. It embeds its social issues strongly in complex personal struggles of women at risk, and Nia DaCosta makes it clear that human choices go hand in hand with complex circumstances that need to be understood. The movie leaves the viewer with no illusions at all about the sordidness of drug peddling and the procurement of abortion in a world dominated aggressively by manipulative males. As such, the film evolves into a strong, feminist statement about the will of women to survive “against the odds”. This is a gritty film of two women on the losing side of what makes “America great again”, and its version of America is of a country surrounded by the casualties that it creates.

The movie is powerfully directed, acted and produced. It is on limited release, and well worth catching.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Limelight Distribution

Released May 16, 2019