Though Nia DaCosta is set to direct a remake of cult classic horror film Candyman next year, her directorial debut, Little Woods, crafts scares of a different kind: those presented by the broken healthcare system of the United States. Anchored by two deeply empathetic performances courtesy of Tessa Thompson and Lily James, the film complicates notions of morality and legality through its exploration of the lengths marginalised communities must go to simply to survive.
Little Woods follows a young woman, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) through her last days of probation. Ollie formerly peddled prescription drugs from Canada to blue-collar workers in small-town North Dakota who needed them to work and make ends meet. Although the demand for her product is still high, Ollie is determined to go straight and seeks work in Washington. Her plans are complicated by her sister, Deb (Lily James), who comes to Ollie pregnant with a child she cannot afford and desperate for a place to stay. In order to support her sister, Ollie is forced to go back into business.
The grace and gravity with which the film confronts pressing issues from abortion to American healthcare is due largely to DaCosta’s script, which treats its characters as living, breathing people. Nobody is a caricature or a stereotype, and everybody is just doing the best they can. A competing drug dealer who becomes aggressive when Ollie starts impeding on his territory is not a monster, he is a family man trying to provide for his loved ones. Deb’s decision to have an abortion is not painted as cruel or selfish; she simply can not afford another child. Every action undertaken by a character is an act of survival, of desperation. As Ollie puts it, “your choices are only as good as your options are.”
It’s impossible to talk about Little Woods without talking about its lead actresses. Thompson and James’ performances are instrumental to the success of the film. Both women embody strength in the face of difficult circumstances and their nuanced, emotional performances call into question the systems in place that put them in their perilous situation. One can not watch Little Woods and feel anything other than a desire to see these sisters get a happy ending, or at least a chance at one, despite the obvious illegality of their actions, and the stars of the film are a definite driving force in that.
However sympathetic the audience may feel towards the actions Deb and Ollie take, it is evident in the film that the authorities do not feel the same way. There are many tense confrontations and close calls between the two that elevate Little Woods from a drama to a quasi-thriller. In these sequences, the true star is composer Brian McComber’s score, which crescendos in time to the mounting tension and emphasises the high stakes that are at risk during every run-in with the law.
Little Woods frequently features shots of brilliant sunsets, standing out in stark contrast to the otherwise bleak landscapes of the film. In many ways, these sunsets symbolise everything the movie is about: the end of a long gruelling day, but along with it, the promise of another, where perhaps things will be better.
by Saru Garg
Saru is a film enthusiast and college student at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is studying human health and film. She has a soft spot for screwball comedies, superheroes, and pretty much everything David Lynch has ever done. Some of her favorite films are Mulholland Dr., Chungking Express, and The Professional. She has also written for The Emory Wheel and The Simple Cinephile. You can find her on Twitter @saru_garg and Letterboxd @sarug