Ollie (played by Tessa Thompson), lives a life many have misconceptions about. Supporting herself and her ill mother by transporting prescription medication across the Canadian–North Dakota border, she sells the excess to those who cannot access treatment themselves. When her mother passes and she is caught crossing the border illegally, she makes efforts to remove herself from her previous life as she focuses on fulfilling her probation. Things change when her younger sister, Deb (played by Lily James), comes to her for help with an unexpected pregnancy, and no home to support herself.
Providing an important and personal social commentary on the complex issue of socioeconomics, Little Woods is about more than just a woman who enters the drug industry in attempt to support her struggling and grieving family. Written and directed by Nia DaCosta, it focuses on how the impacts of industrialisation, sexism, racism, and capitalism, keep specific groups stuck in a low socioeconomic threshold, limiting their options and opportunities, whilst exploring the deep repercussions these disadvantages have.
The film does an exceptional job of representing the way these factors interrelate and affect the lives of Ollie and Deb in complex ways. Whether it’s the threat of losing their house, or Ollie being questioned by an officer for simply standing next to her car, the film is careful to root all their experiences as well as address the emotional and physical impacts they have on the characters. It’s a very poignant and confronting message, binding mental and physical health to the social failings of rural America and, at the same time, one that is absolutely necessary.
Though it does have quite a slow pace, it is with good reason; I believe it helped the film delve further into the realism it was so careful to construct. Without any outlandish plot points, crazy schemes or theatrical displays of rebellion, the film feels extremely human. The subtle and realistic way that Ollie and Deb deal with the circumstances they suffer are very personal and relatable, which in part is due to the strong performances from each actor, but also because the progression of events do not feel like a typical movie.
However, this slow pace does not mean the film is void of tension. Instead of developing scenes that culminate into a climactic event, the film creates a slow, steady, and persevering tension as the sisters’ struggle. With the continual stress of finances, abusive relationships, the grief of losing their mother, and the threat of being caught in the final days of her probationary period, both Ollie and I were constantly on edge.
Through all of this, the presence of the oil industry is strongly prevalent, looming in the background and exacerbating the already downtrodden atmosphere which hosts dull grey colour schemes and concrete buildings. The struggles of Ollie and Deb are shared with the other members of the community, as they struggle with a healthcare system that does not support them, and a polluted environment that worsens their conditions. They don’t feel out of place in the absent, hopeless town of Little Woods, because the sisters, for a period, also feel absent and hopeless.
This is where Tessa Thompson’s performance shines through the most. She does an exceptional job of physically portraying the negative impact her circumstances have on her mental state. Through a short and absent voice that seems to drag, and body language that communicates her inner struggles––wringing her hands or taking deep breaths periodically, and occasionally getting caught staring out into nothing. And while she embodies the same sort of tone that is constructed through her setting, there is a strength and drive that shines through, despite her hardships. She has a magnetic humour and a calming, protective presence, especially when it comes to Deb and her son. Undeterred by her struggles and the lengths she has had to go to in the past, Ollie is a character dedicated to improving her situation.
Not only does this film provide deep insight into the lives of those struggling in America in a personal and human way, but it also develops an empowering message of hope. In this film, Ollie is the heart, and her arc ultimately communicates a very simple but important message: things do get better.
Winning two awards for excellence storytelling and best US Indie feature, Little Woods starts screening at Luna Leederville today!