Watching writer/director Nia DaCosta’s feature debut Little Woods, I was reminded of David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water. Both films are contemporary Westerns that center on siblings going the outlaw route to save the family homestead from foreclosure. Both offer a scathing criticism of an America that forces hard-working families to turn to crime to secure basic necessities. But while the latter focused on cowboy-looking brothers robbing banks, the former follows a pair of steely sisters who turn to drug dealing. And its political commentary reaches beyond the corrupt housing market and into the women’s health crisis.
The town of Little Woods, South Dakota, is a desolate land of fracking fields, crumbling homes, and dusty dreams. After being busted for a drug offense, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) scrapes by selling sandwiches and coffees to the workmen. With her probation period nearly up, she dreams of moving away and leaving this place and her criminal past behind. But first, she needs to help her screw-up sister Deb (Lily James). A single mom squatting with her young son in a rusted trailer, Deb has it tough even before she discovers she’s pregnant again. She can’t rely on her deadbeat baby-daddy. So, Ollie proposes a plan to save their mother’s house from foreclosure so her sister and nephew will have a permanent home.
Like Hell or High Water, Little Woods has an open disdain for a system that revokes homes from people who desperately need them. Exasperated in negotiations with a banker, Ollie challenges, “Trust me, if you saw the house, you’d pay us to keep it.” But the film’s greatest ire is reserved for the American healthcare system that pushes desperate people to desperate measures. Ollie’s customers are not presented as partiers or junkies, but people in pain. A man with a badly wounded ankle begs her for aid because he doesn’t have the money for a doctor’s visit or the hours to spend waiting in Urgent Care. He’s got a shift to get to. There are those who ruthlessly profit from these people’s pain, like a snarling dealer played by Luke Kirby. But the truly ruthless are far offscreen, the unknown but mighty “them” who decide the price of pills and determines that a woman without insurance can expect to pay up to $12,000 to birth her kid in a hospital.
Deb can’t afford that. So she considers her options. There’s a clinic “hundreds of miles away” that would require “hundreds of dollars” she doesn’t have. There’s a back-alley abortionist so shady even talking about him spooks the exotic dancer who might know his name. And then there’s insurance fraud, crossing over to Canada with a fake ID to take advantage of a government that considers the health of its citizens a priority. While Ollie dives back into the shady dealings and risks of running drugs across the border, her sister must decide what she can risk to try to salvage her young son’s future. Her meager savings? Her freedom? Her life?
Little Woods sternly shines a light on an inhumane American reality. And DaCosta’s cast brings a gritty authenticity to this rugged setting. Thompson hides her dazzling smile and sexy swagger behind a firm frown and knitted brow. Her eyes blaze with all the screams Ollie won’t allow herself. By contrast, James slings the occasional smile that reveals the carefree girl Deb once was, but along with a world-weary gaze that speaks of lessons and disillusionment hard-earned. James Badge Dale plays her unreliable but beguiling ex with a roguish bravado. Lance Reddick offers a cautious hopefulness as Ollie’s supportive probation officer. And Luke Kirby brings the physicality of a stalking wolf to the role of a territorial drug kingpin. Despite this striking story, its chilling revelations, and its spectacular cast, there’s something that keeps Little Woods from excellence. It’s DaCosta’s clunky script.
Rather than trusting her cast to perform the emotions brewed within the story, DaCosta too often falters by having her characters state their feelings. All the work she’s done world-building this small, crumbling town and its harried natives is undermined by lines that feel like careless shortcuts. DaCosta didn’t trust the subtext she’d built between the lines. And so she has Thompson make a pronouncement that might as well be a tag line: “Your choices are only as good as your options are.”
This misstep aside, Little Woods is solidly riveting. DaCosta offers a slow-burn tension that sneaks up, then snatches its audience. Her ensemble offers performances so grounded and unnerving that you can’t shake their story. Above all, it proves DaCosta is a strong and provocative new voice in cinema. Here’s hoping with her follow-up she trusts in that more and spoonfeeds us less.
Header Image Source: Neon