★★★★ - NEWS.COM.AU
Little Woods only has a small release, but it’s well worth seeking out. A powerful performance piece for Tessa Thompson and Lily James, the directorial debut by Nia DaCosta is a stunning, deep and thoughtful portrait of two marginalised women in America forgotten by city folk and the political class. Little Woods is a humanist film that doesn’t judge its characters’ choices. Rather it lays out, with stark honesty, the economic and social conditions that lead to those choices.
Thompson plays Ollie, a resourceful woman who once was caught crossing the border between North Dakota and Canada with prescription drugs. She has less than two weeks left of her probation. Ollie gets by with odd jobs such as selling coffee, lunch and laundry services to the workmen. One of those workers wonders if she’s still selling oxycontin. He’s not a “drug addict” in the traditional sense, but through this one case, Little Woods condemns the American health and economic systems. He has a busted ankle, and after spending seven hours waiting in an emergency room, to no avail, he just wants something for the pain so he can go back to work. If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat. For these people, there are no other options.
It’s why someone like Ollie would cross the border for those drugs — originally for her sick and recently deceased mother, and then for other people in desperate situations. It’s illegal, but it’s not always unethical. And it’s that kind of moral greyness Little Woods excels in depicting. Once her probation is up, Ollie wants to move elsewhere for job opportunities, but she’s concerned about her sister Deb (James), who lives in an illegally parked caravan with her young son. Then there’s the matter of their mother’s house, which is about to be foreclosed on unless they can come up with $3000 to pay out the mortgage. That may not seem like a lot of money, but by the time the amount is uttered on screen, DaCosta has crafted such a detailed film, you know it’s an enormous amount for Ollie and Deb. When you have nothing, it doesn’t matter if it’s $3000 or $30,000. With all that stacked against them, and a strained relationship between the sisters, it may seem as if Little Woods is too much of a downer to enjoy — that’s not true.
DaCosta, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a film that is as much about hope and resilience as it is about despair. While the colour palette is mostly cold and grey, occasionally Little Woods throws in a landscape shot at sunset or sunrise, and those shots of orange, pink and lilac through the sky, set against Thompson’s face or profile and the spindly tree branches of the sparse environment, is a thing of beauty. It suggests there is more to life than just struggle — that a world that can create such a scene can be one worth living in. Often in these stories about the underclass, women’s narratives are forgotten — with even less options than men, working jobs that pay less and with greater threats to their security. Little Woods seeks to represent those voices through Ollie and Deb, yet there is a specificity to their stories so it’s never just tokenism. Little Woods is an impressive film and it heralds the arrival of an exciting new filmmaker in DaCosta. Can’t wait to see what she does next.
-WENLEI MA, NEWS.COM.AU