The Quiet Brilliance of Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods

Little Woods is a quiet film. There is nothing flashy about it. The physical experience of this movie—from its soundtrack to its color palette—is unassuming and muted. But that’s because the vehemence of Little Woods lies in its compelling performances and the power of its story and message. Nia DaCosta masterfully brings this all together, packing a colossal wallop in the form a humble yet timely film.

Little Woods is straightforward and begins without so much as an exposition. But that’s because one isn’t needed—everything is painstakingly clear, not just because of what the movie shows the audience, but also because of the reality it represents. Set in a fictional small town in North Dakota, the movie revolves around Ollie (superbly played by Tessa Thompson), who is in her final week and a half of probation after being caught transporting drugs over the US-Canadian border. She’s resolute in wanting to turn her life around, even if that means barely eking out a living selling sandwiches and coffee. When her younger sister Deb (an understated Lily James) gets pregnant, Ollie bites the bullet and returns to dealing opioids.

This film is not at all preachy, but is makes good use of precious movie real estate by not beating around the bush with the harsh reality of Ollie’s and Deb’s lives. Rather than tell you in so many words, Little Woods shows you how poverty can drastically affect one’s choices, and how a failing system can exacerbate a hopeless situation. Sexism and racism is present, and becomes the running undercurrent of most of Deb’s and Ollie’s interactions with others. And the opioid epidemic is the invisible hand that governs over the town, slowly destroying it.

Again, DaCosta doesn’t let her characters spend a lot of time talking about the real-world injustices that they face. Rather, she makes them writ large by showing reality just as it is: an uninsured Deb at the health clinic, being told that giving birth will cost her $8000; Deb and Ollie discussing their options, and eventually choosing to illegally cross the border into Canada for an abortion; Ollie being interrogated by a sheriff because she and her nephew don’t have the same skin color; Deb being coerced into sexual acts because she doesn’t have enough money to pay for her fake Canadian health card. DaCosta peppers instances like these throughout the movie, and it makes the anger, desperation, and hopelessness of a withering community all too palpable. It makes the story all too real.

Little Woods ends on a brighter note than it began, but the uncertainty of a bleak existence still lingers after you’ve left the theatre. DaCosta’s writing and direction carry the film through the dangers of living on the margins without presuming a happy resolution. That makes the movie quietly brilliant, and also cautiously hopeful. It does nothing else but show you the human experience, including the human capacity to keep moving forward against all odds. It’s an irresistible story, and Nia DaCosta gives justice to its message.

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