Little Woods acts as a slow-burning drama that too often extinguishes the tension just as things are heating up
Billed as a modern Western, Little Woods features outlaws who break bad for good reasons. Writer-director Nia DaCosta’s debut picture presents two determined sisters persevering in the face of the many obstacles that life throws their way in their hardscrabble North Dakota oil town. In its best moments, the film serves as an effective slice of life, raising to the fore issues like America’s fractured health care system and women’s limited reproductive rights and options in red states. And yet, while the film positions itself as a would-be thriller, it too often only sets up close calls that the protagonists inevitably escape from unscathed, with the sisters more often huddling together for heart-to-hearts on the kitchen floor or front stoop than finding themselves truly trapped with their backs against the wall.
Ollie and Deb (Tessa Thompson and Lily James, respectively), still feeling the loss of their mother, find themselves breaking the law, and crossing the nearby border into Canada, for their own individual reasons, which, nevertheless, intersect. African-American and adopted, Ollie had the closest relationship with their mother, for whom she gave care in the family home during her mom’s final days. It’s implied that Ollie’s checkered past, which involves a conviction for running Oxy down from across the border, was done to help pay her dying mom’s medical bills. She’s got a kindly parole officer (Lance Riddick) on her side, vouching for her in a new job opportunity as she’s finally going straight. But when the bank threatens foreclosure upon Ollie’s home and the uninsured Deb gets pregnant, the dire need for quick cash thrusts Ollie back into dealing pills, at the prompting of Deb’s hard-living baby daddy Ian (James Badge Dale), with whom Deb already has a son.
DaCosta’s film paints a realistic portrait of good people breaking the law because it’s their only viable alternative. Deb, always the more trouble-prone sister, can’t hold down a place to live and is left homeless after ignoring numerous notices that her illegally parked camper is about to be towed. She learns that, in twenty-first century America, it costs upwards of 10 grand to have a baby without insurance, and an abortion, in a state like North Dakota, requires traveling hundreds of miles to a clinic. This reality eventually leads to a scheme to get a fake ID and have the procedure done in Canada. While kindhearted Ollie has more recently been slinging cheap sandwiches and coffee to burly oil workers, they nevertheless still ask her if she’s got any Oxy. And while cast against the backdrop of America’s opioid epidemic, Ollie’s drug dealing often actually serves as a band-aid for gaps in health care, as many of the men pop these pills to ignore nagging injuries and keep their nose to the grindstone during an oil boom.
Little Woods offers strong performances from its talented cast, with Thompson shining in particular. As Ollie, she’s conflicted and compelling, even if the often heavy-handed script too often forces Ollie and Deb to illustrate political talking points through clunky exposition or spout inane, “you got this”-style platitudes to encourage each other. By bookending her film with shots of Ollie crossing the U.S./Canada border, simply a 50-foot swath of clearing in the middle of a forest, DaCosta subtly offers a contrast to the lurid national attention focused on the southern border, with its corresponding rhetoric about invading drug dealers, ignoring the fact that much of the opioid epidemic stems from north. And while the film as a whole too often relies on exposition and making blatant political commentary, it’s curious that Ollie’s race and gender—she’s a Black woman in an otherwise all-white, blue-collar male-dominated town—never really factors into the narrative. Despite the timely issues it does touch upon, and the committed performances from its leads, Little Woods acts as a slow-burning drama that too often extinguishes the tension just as things are heating up.