Directed by: Nia DaCosta
Written by: Nia DaCosta
Starring: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby, James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick
Rarely does a Hollywood production trying to tell a story about poverty ever nail the despair of not being able to afford the basics in life. When someone struggling to live in their supposed $1500 a month apartment that looks like a penthouse, it feels rather cheap and does not really capture the struggles that come with not knowing if food will be on the table the next day. Through this exploration of poverty, Little Woods also shows the means that these individuals need to resort to in order to make ends meet.
Being eight days away from completing probation for smuggling drugs across the Canadien border, Ollie Hale (Tessa Thompson) tries to leave the small town of Little Woods, North Dakota for a fresh new start and a new job. Her sister, Deb (Lily James), who has a child and an absentee father who does not provide for his son, remains the only thing keeping Ollie in town. After financial strife strikes Deb, Ollie needs to find a way to manage her new move but also assist her sister in the best way possible.
The idea of poverty has never felt more real for me in this film, especially when it looks at the cost of medicine and how that can be devastating especially in the contemporary American healthcare system. A large reason why Ollie smuggles drugs comes from helping others gather medication at the fraction of the cost in Canada. While Ollie gets some financial gain from it, she clearly states that she wants to help others and doesn’t try and smuggle other harder drugs that would get her more in compensation. A specific character faces a pregnancy and they are told that in order to get the proper care and delivery for the baby it would cost the mother $8,000 without insurance, which they do not have. It’s baffling and a stark reminder that even the simplest action of any mammal, in reproduction, could bankrupt someone. Additionally, when being in North Dakota, the other alternative to pregnancy becomes difficult to find and not much cheaper. The abuse of the healthcare system in this country feels palpable and definitely leaves an impact on the film.
The pairing of Lily James and Tessa Thompson serves as a partnership I never thought I needed but now I’m not sure how I lived this long without it. They work so incredibly well together as sisters facing the hardships set before them but the standout is certainly Thompson. She has plenty to do in this film and the emotional weight lands on her shoulders to carry. The house that their mother left teeters on the verge of foreclosure, her sister has fallen into deep financial strife, and to make ends meet before her move, she might have to resort to her previous means of compensation of illegal trafficking and selling of drugs. This battle of trying to do the right thing even if it would negatively impact her future and goals show Thompson taking on such a challenging role and she certainly steps up to display her artistic merit along with her blockbuster smashes.
For a feature film debut, Nia DaCosta delivers a harrowing experience, as she captures this bleak world that the characters have to live in. Some characters have to illegally park their mobile home just for shelter. There’s a lack of color because no sense of hope exists in the mind of these people. Ollie, who has some glimmer of it has to do what she swore off doing in order to survive within it. With it also being North Dakota, the film shows how bitterly cold it can get and it can be felt through the screen. The story probably did not even take place in the harshest North Dakota winter, but not even having the basic necessity of shelter make it feel much colder.
Along with looking at the healthcare system, Little Woods also shows the disparity in resources in the Midwest as compared to the coastal cities. If someone seeks an abortion, they will have to travel hundreds of miles just for the opportunity. If one wants to get some of the basic resources taken for granted in larger cities, that might not be entirely possible in a town like Little Woods. This cold and harsh reality contributes to such a bleak experience but the warmth exists between the two sisters. Their bond and connection melts away all of the freezing temperatures that they may encounter on the outside. Ollie would risk her freedom in order to help her sister, which shows the strong bond between them.
A very good film has its messages drawn out throughout its runtime and it really helps that it has two of the brightest and rising stars in Hollywood. Seeing them take a break from being part of large hits like Thor: Ragnarok and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (yeah, I said it) and do a small and intimate film as this speaks to their desire to improve and grow as actors.