Little Woods is a neo-western that serves as a full deconstruction of what ails the United States of America through the eyes of women. Poverty, medical care, sexism, racism, and the opioid crisis are presented challenges for the film protagonists. As the feature debut for writer/director Nia Dacosta, this film manages to tackle so many subjects without obnoxious amounts of exposition. There is a subtle integration of these topics weaved into the plot and story that doesn’t preach to the viewer.
Set in the desolate, industrial town of Little Woods, North Dakota, former drug smuggler Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is days away from completing her parole sentence. After the death of her mother, things looked bleak but a second chance came in the form of a vanilla job opportunity in Spokane, Washington.
However, life comes fast for Ollie as she is pressured to get back into smuggling drugs by Little Woods Kingpin Bill (Luke Kirby). Her problems mount as her mother’s house is up for foreclosure, and her sister Deb (Lily James) is broke, homeless, and pregnant with a second child she can’t afford to keep.
Ollie slowly integrates herself into drug dealing business by peddling her mom’s old medications for money. The goal is to make enough for her sister and nephew to live comfortably while trying not to get sent back to prison.
The duo surmises that it’s easier and closer to sneak across the Canadian border to get an abortion, than travel within the United States and pay for one. Bill, seizes the opportunity and offers Ollie the money she needs for her family if she runs a large number of drugs to Canada. With no choice, Ollie agrees.
The story is pretty straight forward but what’s praiseworthy is how Dacosta constructs the plot with subtle integration of the movie’s many themes, without heavy handed exposition. For example, Ollie and Deb are affected by poverty because they inhabit a bare and broken environment. Sexism is rampant in this small town, but the audience doesn’t need to be told, it’s in their interactions with men, the audience witnesses gendered subjugation.
The American medical system is a mess, you see it in how difficult it is to access said health care when the characters would rather cross international borders and commit identity theft than deal anything the country has to offer.
Racism is ever present but introduced in a small exchange between Ollie, Deb, and the local Sheriff. This moment proves that even Deb, the poorest of white folk has more privilege as a white woman than Ollie–who is miles ahead of Deb in terms of accomplishments—because of skin color.
Our protagonist is stoic, passionate, unapologetic, and all that comes alive because of Tessa Thompson. She isn’t new to playing kickass women, but in Little Woods, what Thompson brings to the table is unshakable vulnerability that I didn’t expect from a character like this. It’s easy to tell the actress enjoys tackling roles that cover the emotional spectrum. It’s clear that Thompson is the most hardworking and deservingly one of the most sought after actresses working today.
Ollie and Deb’s situation is similar to so many women living in poverty women have to be on guard from men regularly, women who endure racism, women watch their communities crumble due to drugs, or all of the above. This movie is a master class in story and plot development as it fully immerses its audience in the experiences of the characters and the world they operate in.
After watching Little Woods, one should feel roused to make change, so no woman in real life has to ever go through the trials and tribulations of the women on screen.