2019 Film Essays

In an Excellent Debut, Writer-Director Nia DaCosta Explores ‘Little Woods’

Set in the fictional Little Woods, North Dakota — a small town in the western oil patch not too far from the Canadian border — Nia DaCosta’s first feature film as writer-director marks an auspicious and confident debut. Recalling some of the same issues explored in Courtney Hunt’s memorable Frozen River, Little Woods also shares its point of view through the harrowing day-to-day of two working class women pushed to break the law to survive. While Frozen River deals with the illegal trafficking of immigrants across the northern border, Little Woods addresses the limitations of the U.S. healthcare system via the smuggling of prescription pharmaceuticals. DaCosta’s commentary is not limited to the state of absurd drug costs. She also acknowledges the exploitation of the poor by predatory energy speculators, the frustrations of mortgage options for a person of meager means and abortion access.

Despite the checklist of social issues and the mostly erroneous descriptions identifying the movie as a kind of western, Little Woods operates with the tension of a crime thriller. Tessa Thompson adds yet another astonishing performance to her already remarkable filmography. As Ollie, Thompson perfects the weary guardedness that comes from hand-to-mouth living. Coming up on the end of a term of mandated supervision, the reminder given to Ollie by her probation officer Carter (Lance Reddick) that she is just days away from successful completion should clue the audience that the final stretch is going to be a rough ride. Carter’s encouragement of and belief in Ollie don’t prevent him from doing his job, and DaCosta puts together a brilliantly nerve-wracking sequence when Carter pays less-than-truthful Ollie a surprise visit.

Just as she approaches the finish line, Ollie’s single-mom sister Deb (Lily James) confesses that she is pregnant and uncertain about her short term housing options. Coming up with even a few thousand dollars to postpone foreclosure on their recently deceased mother’s place is out of reach. Navigating the system is difficult enough, but Ollie’s troubles are exacerbated by both the father of Deb’s young son (James Badge Dale) and a competing local dealer (Luke Kirby) being rather unhappy to learn Ollie is getting back in the trade. In large ways and small, DaCosta sharply explores the ways in which women navigate a hostile environment dominated by men.

Those familiar with the short and long-term impact of hydraulic fracturing on the Bakken formation’s North Dakota oil boom will immediately recognize the living conditions of the men and women working in and around the industry. The look and feel of Yvonne Boudreaux’s production design, Patrick Jackson’s set decoration and Colin Wilkes’ costuming evoke the tough realities seen in nonfiction films like Isaac Gale’s Sweet Crude Man Camp, J. Christian Jensen’s White Earth, Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters and Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling’s My Country No More. And even though Little Woods was shot in Texas, most North Dakotans won’t find much of anything amiss in the representation.

DaCosta is flat-out terrific at constructing scene after scene of anxious menace. I can’t wait to see what she does collaborating with Jordan Peele on the upcoming Candyman. The examples are plentiful (just look at what the director does with a clinic waiting room), but Deb’s harrowing quest to obtain a fake ID while Ollie casually tries to distract a cop is a master class in cross-cutting. DaCosta intensifies the dread of being busted with the terrifying alarm of a possible sexual assault. Sexism and toxic masculinity are not unusual in this genre, but DaCosta’s emphasis on sisterhood and the presentation of a female point of view turn Little Woods into a fresh, must-see cinematic experience.

Little Woods was named Best Narrative Feature at the 2019 Fargo Film Festival and was selected as the closing night film. The film opens in select theaters on April 19, 2019.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997. 

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