Little Woods (2018)
Written & Directed by Nia DaCosta
Some people live on the fringes, always one lay off, or one missed payment away from complete devastation. They can live anywhere, big cities, or barren rural landscapes, a forgotten class perpetually kept in poverty because the system demands someone to populate the very bottom. For these people, affordable health care and full stomachs are about as real as the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. Those luxuries are something other people have, the forgotten bottom sit in waiting rooms for eight-plus hours only to be handed a bottle of opioids and told to move on.
In Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods, we follow Oleander “Ollie” Hale (Tessa Thompson), a woman on probation for illegally crossing the North Dakota/Canada border. She has eight days remaining on her probation when her sister, Deb (Lilly James), comes to her distraught over an unplanned pregnancy with a boyfriend who hasn’t supported her and their first child. Ollie doesn’t want Deb to go with a back-alley abortion, but the closest place is over the Canadian border. Then they are hit with the double whammy of the mortgage of their deceased mother’s house going into foreclosure. Ollie can negotiate the price down from $5,000 to $3,000 but only has a handful of days to scrape together the money. Local workers relied on Ollie to sell them prescription drugs they otherwise couldn’t afford, and she is sitting on 500 pills trying to not end up in prison. But the circumstances of her life are pulling Ollie into choosing survival over following the law.
Little Woods is about some critical things, especially as American society declines regarding health care access and increasing poverty. The grating thing is that the dialogue doesn’t feel naturalistic, and that takes away from a picture I wanted to be perfect. Little Woods is by no means terrible, it’s structure is fluid and has a very realistically increasing series of obstacles in the way of its characters. Cars get towed, bills mount, women become prey to men looking for desperate people. So when the characters speak in a way that doesn’t always feel organic to who they are and their conditions, it takes me out of the narrative a bit.
I think the film does an excellent job showcasing how incredibly legalistic people possess a child’s understanding of economics and human existence. The use of drugs and alcohol to escape the drudgery of day to day life is understandable. You can’t go to a nice doctor and have him show genuine concern over your maladies. People living in this situation are at the whims of a fast-food style health care system that plies them with highly addictive opioids designed for them to just shut up and keep begging for more. Parents routinely have to take their kids to work because child care is totally non-existent. You rely on family members who can spare the time and room.
There is a body language in our two main characters that communicate defeat and the expectation of further failure. These women have become conditioned because their lives have been spent in a nearly barren wind-blasted rural wasteland. There are tons of potholes and muddy gravel parking lots, people trudging from their cars to stores and bars in filthy winter coats. Ollie’s probation officer (Lance Reddick) tries to show empathy and does express his pride in the woman securing a job with the possibility of bettering her life. However, he still has more power than her because of his status and can search her house whenever he wants. It’s hard to make connections with anyone when the ones best positioned to help you also have the power to destroy your life.
Little Woods is a terrific debut from Nia DaCosta, enough to increase my enthusiasm about her Candyman film (hopefully) coming out this year. I think she understands the plight of marginalized people, and the film version of Candyman is very much about the marginalized Black experience in America, particularly those Black people who live in intergenerational poverty, haunted by the stain of slavery. Candyman will be better suited for a more dramatic style of dialogue, I just wish Little Woods had leaned into naturalism in that regard more.