Tessa Thompson and Lily James struggle to make ends meet in this scintillating, if occasionally hazy, poverty drama.
“Money’s money when you ain’t got it,” Ollie (Tessa Thompson) says halfway through Nia DaCosta‘s directorial debut Little Woods; it’s a philosophy the inhabitants of the titular North Dakota fracking town know all too well. Other critics have been calling this a neo-Western or a feminist Western, which feels like pigeonholing this drama into a category it doesn’t necessarily warrant. It’s scintillating, filled with a deep emotional core and a close concern with the ways rural poverty hurts women in ways men don’t understand, but in no way is it a Western.
The closest analogue to Little Woods might be Winter’s Bone, for its grimy depictions of the plight of the working poor; while that could more comfortably be called a neo-noir for its deliberate dabbling in the trappings of the mystery genre, Little Woods is keenly concerned with the very contemporary troubles of the women at its center.
DaCosta’s film concerns Ollie, a woman ten days out from the end of her probation for smuggling Oxycontin across the US-Canada border. She’s just trying to put her head down and get through the sentence, no matter how many times people like Bill (Luke Kirby) hits her up for pills. She easily could; before her arrest, she hit away bags and bags of pills in the woods she could sell for the money she needs to keep her family home from being foreclosed on.
But like so many tragic protagonists before her, she’s trying so hard to turn over a new leaf. Complications arise, however, when her adoptive sister Deb (Lily James) comes to her doorstep, pregnant and with nowhere to go after her boyfriend (James Badge Dale) goes to jail. With foreclosure looming, and her sister in such immediate need, the temptation to return to her old life, even if out of sheer necessity, grows ever closer.
Valerie June, “Workin’ Woman Blues”
I ain’t fit to be no mother
I ain’t fit to be no wife yet
I been workin’ like a man, y’all
I been workin’ all my life yeah
As you can tell, it’s very hard to categorize Little Woods. At turns, it’s a ticking-clock thriller, a harrowing social drama, a character study showcasing two of modern cinema’s most valuable players in Thompson and James. Thankfully, DaCosta keeps the focus squarely on Deb and Ollie, giving the actresses playing them new depths to plumb. It’s hard to think of roles where James and Thompson have felt so utterly exhausted, broken down by their character’s circumstances; there are times when it feels like they can barely lift their head off the dining room table.
But that’s part of Little Woods‘ charm, as it takes seriously the abjectly draining nature of what happens to our souls when we can barely make ends meet. Towns like these are in big trouble, with crumbling infrastructure and high rates of drug use; their sole economic lifeline, fracking, is fraught with its own environmental and ethical concerns. No one in the film seems particularly hopeful for a better future, Deb in particular; she consistently vacillates between whether or not to have the baby, unable to really afford either option. “Did you know it costs $8,000 to have a baby?” Deb says aghast to Ollie at one point – it’s an inconceivable amount of money for either of them. Dale’s Ian wants her to have the baby, begging her to let him marry her and turn his life around; that this scene takes place in a jail cell, and he looks so very vulnerable, doesn’t help his case. Characters are faced with hard decisions all around, pushed into harsh corners by the ever-grinding gears of poverty. In Ollie’s shoes, it’s hard to picture ourselves making different decisions.
DaCosta’s layered, focused direction lets us breathe with the characters, even as her script occasionally borders on the languorous or contrived. (One scene in particular involving some particularly nasty men Deb tries to make a deal with feels like an unnecessary bit of violent tension, sadly realistic though it may be.) But mostly, there’s a weariness in every one of DaCosta’s characters that stands out – even the two abortion clinic protestors Deb walks past at one point are silent, still, broken down by the hopeless rhythms of this small town.
All of this sounds like poverty porn, and to a certain extent, it might be. But when it’s this handsomely staged, and filled with reminders of the way systems fail people in areas like this (especially women), Little Woods rises above being a novel showcase for its two impeccable leads and becomes a broader treatise on the struggles of America’s most overlooked corners.
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