Women are constantly underestimated – shoved in corners and preyed upon as if we’re supposed to shrink into ourselves and wait for someone (typically a man) to come save us. And yet, for as long as hardships have existed and sexist rules and regulations have tried to box us in, women have found ways to rebel against societal norms and write our own stories. In her feature film debut, Little Woods, writer/director Nia DaCosta tells the story of two women determined to make a better life for themselves.
In the poverty-stricken and depressing town of Little Woods, North Dakota, DaCosta paints the story of two sisters, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) who are trying to piece together a life for themselves after the death of their mother. Scrappy and determined, Ollie has set up a coffee stand out of her pickup truck, serving hot beverages and sandwiches to the men working in the town's plant. It’s a long way away from her days as a prescription drug dealer -- a job she started out of necessity to help her ailing mother. As the final days of her probation loom, an opportunity for a new start elsewhere keep her determined to stay on the right path despite foreclosure notices on her mother's house and her sister Deb’s frantic cry for help.
Deb isn't faring much better than her sister. A single mother with a deadbeat drunken ex (James Badge Dale), she can’t make a sound decision to save her life. Desperate for her independence and yet hopelessly reliant on her sister for help, Deb is too overwhelmed to think straight, and it’s up to Ollie to save her and her young son.
Little Woods is a bold feminist tale of sisterhood, tenacity and the weariness of being female in a world always trying to harm you. Set against the sparse but immensely beautiful Great Plains, DaCosta paints an empathetic portrait of America's opioid problem. For Ollie, selling drugs becomes a means of survival. However, she suffers in a constant state of anxiety, and she finds herself in the crosshairs of Bill (Luke Kirby), Little Woods' big-time drug dealer whose volatile outbursts leave her on edge. The nation's broken healthcare system is also a major thread in this film. Affordable healthcare and prescriptions are difficult to come by in general. The impoverished folks in Little Woods have it worse. Women, in particular, have no real access to complete healthcare and abortion services because North Dakota is a conservative state -- despite 1973's Roe v. Wade ruling.
L to R: Lily James, Nia DaCosta, Tessa Thompson
Little Woods certainly has the tropes of a classic Western. Yet, it feels a bit sluggish at times -- matching the pace of the economically depressed town. However, the stellar chemistry between James and Thomson (who also executive produced the film) and a welcome and warm portrayal of Ollie’s parole officer Carter, by The Wire alum Lance Reddick, pushed the film forward when it began to lag.
Both Thompson and James are magnificent as two women who are forced to navigate the aggressive and explosive behavior of men to survive. Little Woods is a story we don’t often see told from a black woman’s lens, especially not in this particular setting. It’s a story of sisters who band together and fight against every complication to forge a better path for their family, even though it may cost them everything in the end. With no one else to turn to, Ollie and Deb become the heroines of their own lives.
Little Woods premiered April 21, 2018, at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.