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. All deliberate decisions because the vehemence of Little Woods lies within its compelling performances and the power of its thematics. Nia DaCosta masterfully brings this all together, packing a colossal wallop in the form of a humble yet timely film.
Little Woods is straightforward and begins without so much as an exposition. But that is because one is not needed – everything is painstakingly clear. Not just because of what the movie shows the audience, but also of the reality it represents. Set in a fictional small town in North Dakota, the film 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 is 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 it makes good use of precious movie real estate by not beating around the bush with the harsh reality of Ollie and Deb’s lives. Rather than telling you in so many words, Little Woods shows how poverty can drastically affect one’s choices, and how a failing system can exacerbate a hopeless situation. Sexism and racism are present and become the running undercurrent of most of Deb’s and Ollie’s interactions with others. The opioid epidemic is the invisible hand that governs over the town, slowly destroying it.
Again, DaCosta does not let her characters spend much time talking about the real-world injustices that they face. Rather, she makes them writ large by showing the 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 do not have the same skin color. Deb being coerced into sexual acts because she does not 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 one’s viewing. 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 while also cautiously hopeful. It does nothing else but showing you the human experience, including the mortal capacity of moving forward against all odds. It is an irresistible story, and Nia DaCosta gives justice to its message.