Imagine a small, North Dakota town coming down off a fracking boom. The streets were once flooded with able-bodied men, who drastically outnumbered the woman residents, but now, the boom is over. Everyone is struggling financially, physically, and mentally, driving up illegal sales of opioids. And as the town crumbles, being a woman in that environment is as difficult as ever. That's where we find the protagonists of director Nia DaCosta's new film Little Woods, which is loosely based on the fall of Williston, ND.
The film follows two sisters, Ollie (Tessa Thompson), who's almost finished her parole after getting caught illegally running prescription drugs to Canada, and Deb (Lily James), a single mother and struggling waitress, desperate to keep her head above water for her young son. Unfortunately, their money problems aren't getting any easier, and they eventually have to make tough choices about what they're willing to do to survive. For Deb, that means considering some less-than-legal solutions when she finds out she's pregnant with a baby she can't even afford to give birth to, thanks to rising healthcare costs. For Ollie, that means potentially falling back into her old, illegal habits to help her sister and keep their family home by selling prescription drugs to struggling workers around her hometown of Little Woods.
"It's a story about women to living below the poverty line in America and particularly, investigating that relationship between powerlessness and agency and how active these women still were," DaCosta tells Refinery29. "Just because they are struggling doesn't mean that you're just rolling into sadness; there's things to be done and things to do. With the character of Ollie, I really wanted someone who's active and who's looked at every avenue, who's tried everything she could — whether or not it was legal — to do right by her family."
For Thompson, who's been a part of the film since its inception at a screenwriting incubator where she first met DaCosta, the story is more personal than some audiences might realize. She is not, in fact, just some Hollywood star stepping into a story she's never fully lived.
"So often there's this idea that Hollywood gives a voice to the voiceless, and that's not true at all. A lot of us have been voiceless, and now we have proximity to a microphone. In this case, I feel like because of our shared experiences, both Nia and myself, it doesn't feel like we're exploiting an experience that we don't entirely understand," she tells Refinery29.
So often there's this idea that Hollywood gives a voice to the voiceless, and that's not true at all. A lot of us have been voiceless, and now we have proximity to a microphone.
While Thompson concedes that she's never lived full-time in a town like Williston or Little Woods and doesn't know that exact experience herself, she has lived with some of the issues both Ollie and Deb face in the film.
"I'll be frank. I work inside of Hollywood; I have for 10 years. I'm also from Los Angeles and the only other place I've spent real time is New York. So inside of that data, I've had this sort of insular experience in some ways," she says, before pointing out her own upbringing by a young single mother, much like Deb. "I understand what it is to be a woman and have to make choices around reproductive health and not feel like you necessarily have options. I understand that from growing up and being around young women that had those problems. I went to a public high school, where friends that I knew were young mothers and trying to get access to childcare. I watched my mom struggle with trying to get access to childcare, and she was raising me and my sister as she had to work three jobs. So there's a lot about Ollie's experience that I understand entirely."
Still, Thompson knew she needed to do the work to learn about the region and even more specific experience of the women represented in Little Woods, so she traveled to Williston to meet a few of them. Both women she spoke to — one of whom Thompson says was basically the exact same person as James' character Deb — expressed just how high the threat of sexual violence feels in a place like Williston.
"Both of those women go everywhere in Williston with a handgun in their purse. At the height of the boom, there were women that were raped inside of Walmart while they were shopping, so physical and sexual violence [in Williston] is so real," she cautions, referring to stories like this one from the New York Times, which chronicled the uptick in sexual violence when Williston was at the height of success. And if you notice that threat hanging above nearly every scene in Little Woods, DaCosta says that's entirely on purpose. And that boldness and attention to detail is something that Thompson prizes after working with DaCosta.
"She also had a sort of confidence and self-assuredness that I think is really important, particularly for a young, new director. You have to be able to stand your ground and say, 'I see what I see, and I think it's valuable' and she had that in spades," Thompson says.
And if that wasn't enough of a compliment, Thompson also professes that Ollie — unlike most of the characters she'd played — is someone who will be on her mind for a while, simply because the film doesn't entirely figure her out by the time the credits roll.
"Even now I feel like I don't know who she is entirely, because she hasn't become who she is. She's a character that I'd like to keep in touch with."
Little Woods, directed by Nia DaCosta, is a neo-Western that tells the story of two sisters, Ollie and Deb, who are driven to work outside the law to better their lives.