There’s a scene in Little Woods that I’ve thought a lot about since it first premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last year. In it, Deb (Lily James), a single mom trying to sneak over the border into Canada to get an affordable abortion, meets with two guys who claim they can provide her with a fake Manitoba insurance card. Leaving her sister Ollie (Tessa Thompson), and sleeping son Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid) outside, Deb heads into their cabin alone. It soon becomes clear that something’s not quite right here. Their constant questions, bold stares, the way they follow her around holding bottles of beer, telling her to “relax” — writer-director Nia Dacosta wants the audience to feel Deb’s discomfort.
Most women know that feeling, the imperceptible shift in the mood that sets off an alarm bell in your brain: A Threat. And though Deb is never actually physically harmed, it’s a scene of such sustained, breathless tension that there’s ever any doubt about its inherent violence. In that sense, Little Woods is a distinctly feminine film, dealing with issues that matter to women (healthcare, reproductive rights, economic survival), through a specifically female lens.
Set mostly in the fracking town of Little Woods, North Dakota, the neo-Western centers largely around Ollie (short for Oleander), who’s got days left on her parole for illegally running prescription pills over the Canadian border. She’s also got a lead on a job in Spokane, an opportunity that could get her back on her feet after the death of her mother, who she’d been caring for. But of course, that’s precisely when life would get in the way: local drug kingpin Bill (The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’s Luke Kirby) is pressuring Ollie to work for him, her half-sister Deb is out of cash, essentially homeless and facing an unplanned pregnancy; and their family home is about to get foreclosed on. As the problems start to pile up, Ollie has to decide if she has one last drug run in her before she sets herself free.
If stories about women are still too rare onscreen, those of women — and women of color — living in a rural, industrial setting are even more scarce. As a result, Dacosta’s impressive debut feature gives off Winter’s Bone vibes, not just because of the hardened, barren and bleak atmosphere, but because Deb and Ollie aren’t the kind of women we’re used to seeing on screen. These are women who have run out of options.
Their desperation is mirrored in their immediate surroundings, which Dacosta frames as yet another character in the story. Her camera lingers on the medical equipment left over from Ollie and Deb’s late mother’s long fight with cancer; the bottles of beer stacked haphazardly in the washed-out dorm-like accommodations for men who work on the oil rigs; the ramshackle, dilapidated buildings; the ersatz parking lot trailer park Deb has made her home. This is a film that’s firmly rooted in an atmosphere and space.
Even the costumes, courtesy of Colin Wilkes, reflect difficult circumstances. Ollie’s uniforms of thermals, jeans and practical boots extends even into her choice of interview outfit — she just throws a blazer on top. Deb’s wardrobe, while similarly bulky, hints at a woman who used to care a lot about her appearance, and is now just too worn out to worry about it.
Still, Dacosta makes sure to inject little moments of hope: the banter Ollie shares with the men she caters breakfast for; funny, intimate rapport between the sisters; a quiet, poignant scene between Ollie and her nephew. Those small segments not only help to break up the bleakness, they ground what could have been an abstract big picture allegory about the opioid crisis, the debate over healthcare, and the people left behind without a safety net. Ollie and Deb don’t feel like symbols. Their problems may be shared by many, but these characters are living, breathing women. They have a past, and hopefully, a future.
Mostly, that’s down to Thompson and James’ powerful, layered performances. Despite their obvious Hollywood glamour, they manage to blend into these surroundings thanks to their steadfast commitment, like Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Charlize Theron (Monster), and Nicole Kidman (Destroyer) before them. There are no prosthetics here, but the transformation is no less striking.
Ollie’s longing for a way out is evident in Thompson’s gestures. Even as she’ll stop at nothing to help her sister, there’s an underlying resentment there. As for James, her expression of resigned despair as Deb finds out that she can neither afford to give birth, nor have an abortion, without insurance, is seared into my brain. It’s the expression of a woman who’s been let down so many times that she can barely summon the will to care. And while the two play off of each other in that comfortable, lived-in dynamic of sisters, there’s an ocean of unspoken issues bubbling underneath the surface.
Ollie’s biracial identity is never explicitly addressed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not significant. Even within the limited circumstances of Little Woods, there’s a hierarchy of privilege: While Deb is dealing with the stressful situation mentioned above, Ollie is confronted by a state trooper who is instantly suspicious of a Black woman traveling with a white child — her nephew, asleep in the car.
It’s those kinds of details that make Little Woods so indelible. Just when you think you know where it’s going, it subverts the genre, telling an old story from a new, unexpected perspective.
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. Grab tickets here.