There’s a moment in Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods where Lily James asks her on screen sister, Tessa Thompson, if she’ll be able to transfer pills across the Canadian border without getting caught. While Thompson offers a familiar confidence and charisma in her retort, James’ anxiety and a flutter in Thompson’s voice raises doubt. Uncertainty abounds as much as OxyContin pills in this story about crossing the Canadian border, but in the process, there becomes complete certainty that DaCosta is one of the most astute directors working in cinema today.
Little Woods is an assured directorial debut by the upcoming filmmaker—so strong, in fact, she’s helming the Candyman remake based on Jordan Peele’s script—and it features strong, nuanced performances from Thompson and James as Ollie and Deb, two sisters living in North Dakota and who are oscillating between being fragile as kindling and flinty as flame.
Ollie is the protagonist of this film, a woman nearing the end of her probation after she’s first caught smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Canadian border. Her parole officer (Lance Reddick) is rooting for her, so much so that he’s facilitating her various job interviews in an effort to ensure she bounces back, and in the right direction. When we meet her, Ollie is selling coffee and sandwiches to the men on the oil field for loose cash. Isolated by the conditions of their work, these men rely on Ollie for affordable fuel to get by during their long shifts. They used to rely on her for another kind of fuel, namely pain pills, and over the course of the first fourth of the film, we see various men in acute stress begging for something to quell their agony.
Despite Ollie’s best efforts, she’s struggling to get by: Her mother has just died, their house is about to be seized by the bank, and her sister Deb has just discovered she’s pregnant with her second child, despite being separated from both children’s father Ian, an oil worker who lives in a cinderblock single room at the oil site and who drinks steadily. Deb, meanwhile, lives with her young son in a van and waitresses to make ends meet. Inevitably, Deb will show up on Ollie’s doorstep for dinner, to do laundry, and, eventually, to ask if Ollie can drive her across the border where she’ll have access to a safe, legal, and affordable abortion in Canada.
It’s a dire situation, especially as the only way to alleviate her family’s pain is for Ollie to start selling such relief at discount.
Tessa Thompson is transfixing as Ollie, a woman attempting to hold the tome of her life together with a paperclip. For a majority of the movie, she’s largely unflappable: like a lake in summer, depthless and cool. But when she loses it, it happens hard and fast. When a man approaches her at the bar who won’t take no for an answer, she busts him in the eye with her shot glass, and when Deb loses Ollie’s drug money, Ollie’s voice crackles between accusatory sobs. Hunched in her oversized coat, her face often obscured by her woolen hat, Thompson is tough, but still prone to tenderness, like when she nestles her nose in her nephew’s neck upon waking, whispering that she’s always glad to see him. There’s love in what some might misconstrue as Ollie’s lawlessness. Love is Ollie’s driving force.
As Deb, James demonstrates more restraint and range than viewers might be used to after her appearance in Baby Driver. No longer a mere object of desire outfitted in an apron, Deb is also a waitress here, but a multi-faceted and mess one. She’s struggling to assert agency in her life, especially when her choices are thwarted at every turn. While we may at times shake our heads at Deb’s seemingly avoidable oversights (not using birth control, ignoring an impoundment notice), we also intuitively understand through her face (open, unable to hide every emotion trembling on the surface) that her intentions are good. While Ollie may be the sibling best equipped to juggle a myriad of responsibilities, Deb’s mistakes do not mar her; rather we cotton to her even more because of them.
I saw Little Woods at FilmScene in downtown Iowa City during their annual Women’s March: for the month of March they show nothing but female directed films. At the conclusion of the screening, one of the men in the audience asked if there was anything distinctive that made this a “woman’s film.” I’ve thought a lot about this question since, especially in our current cultural climate where discussions of equity and visibility abound concurrent with little actual institutional change. DaCosta’s empathetic eye and her direction, is not, ultimately, essentialized as woman, but rather deeply humanist.
While there are certain shots that suggest a feminist outlook, such as the overhead long shot of Deb during her abortion where the camera does not cut, as if the film is formally in solidarity with Deb during this moment she’s both feared and longed for in equal measure, one could also argue that this is a film not just about women, but the people of Donald Trump’s America: People our government purports to look out for but recurrently ignore.
Violence bristles on the surface of nearly every scene in Little Woods. In this midwestern state, men throw women against the wall if they encroach on their customers; men extort women out of more money for a fake ID card because they’re also being screwed by a system that increasingly widens the gap between the haves and the have nots; even the pumpjack’s steady rhythm and the broken stalks of wild grass all suggest a landscape sapped and shattered by (mis)use.
However, the individuals in this film do not flirt with illegalities because of fame or fortune; they engage in illegal behavior because they’ve been backed into a corner where waitressing as a single parent is not enough to pay for a child (much less the cost of a delivery which is roughly $8,000 without health insurance), and where access to medical treatment is mere myth, rather than an inalienable right.
In Little Woods, DaCosta points no fingers at any of the characters on the screen. Rather the villain is the pall these institutions (the banks, health care) and governmental policies (the dwindling access to abortion in rural America) cast on these individuals in the throes of extraordinary, and ultimately avoidable, circumstances. Via Little Woods, DaCosta throws open a welcomed window to this world so that we do see the forest for the trees: every character, every branch, trembling, tumultuous, full of budding, burgeoning potential.
Little Woods opens on Friday, April 19.