In Little Woods, Nia DaCosta’s enlightened and empathic feature debut, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) struggles to make ends meet by selling coffee and food to workers. Like Ollie, the men, all poor and many affected by the Opioid epidemic, seem to be the only ones not cashing in on the oil fields they tend each day. The millions being generated aren’t trickling down to the working class, who are left with fewer and more desperate options just to survive.
For Ollie, desperation means getting back into the drug business she fought so hard to leave. Just days away from completing parole on a charge of importing illegal OxyContin from Canada, which she used to ease her ailing mother’s pain, Ollie has is also burdened by her estranged sister Deb (Lily James), who is once again pregnant even though she can barely take care of the son she already has. When the bank demands $5000 stop foreclosure of their home, there’s really only one way to make that kind of money and it ain’t trading stocks on Wall Street. In the economically-depressed town of Little Woods, North Dakota, there are no easy ways out.
It’s a roundabout “one last job” premise, and DaCosta plays up the thriller aspects wonderfully. The mounting tension is indisputable. In particular any time a man enters the picture because most of them are no good; such as Deb’s deadbeat baby-daddy (James Badge Dale), or menacing like Bill (Luke Kirby) who isn’t happy about having his profits undercut by Ollie’s return to the business. Good-for-nothing dudes aren’t the only concern, however. DaCosta indicts a number of American institutions that do a disservice to poor women. When Deb discovers that it costs $8,000 just to have a baby, it forces her into making another tough decision, only to find that getting an abortion would prove just as difficult for someone in her predicament.
DaCosta captures the hopeless atmosphere in washed-out color palettes and barren landscapes, evoking a similar feel to Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, or the Melissa Leo drama Frozen River. These films share a lot in common thematically, as determined women try to navigate a treacherous landscape with equally treacherous men and a government that is non-existent or downright hostile. It makes Ollie an interesting character to root for, as someone who deals Opioids despite the impact it’s having on her community. In DaCosta’s favor, she doesn’t ignore Ollie’s part in it, but proceeds without judgement for viewers to decide where they fall.
It’s another thoughtful, commanding performance by Thompson, who adds depth to Ollie that DaCosta’s script doesn’t always afford. Her Ollie is a jumble of conflicting emotions, but she always remains loyal to her family despite feeling like an outsider among outsiders. It’s casually mentioned that she was adopted, which informs some of the strained interactions she has with Deb throughout. Speaking of which, this is a surprisingly gritty, unglamorous role for James and she ought to do more like this. Her natural beauty stands out to such a degree that you fear it makes her a target anytime Deb is alone. In Little Woods, the threats are everywhere, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and captivity so intense you don’t mind if DaCosta eases up on her two heroines in the end. Consider it a tiny bit of wish fulfillment when so much of her film depicts a grim reality.