“Little Woods” is writer and director Nia DaCosta’s debut film about two sisters in rural South Dakota struggling to make ends meet. Tessa Thompson (“Sorry to Bother You”, “Creed”) plays Ollie, short for Oleander. Ollie is a determined, serious, and extremely resourceful sister and aunt that is forced to get back into selling street painkillers, with just 4 days left on parole, to save her house from foreclosure. The film opens with a meditative but quick sequence of Ollie burying a miscellaneous bag of drugs, walking fast down a dirt road, running from a state trooper, and the opening title. A perfect introduction to the tumultuous journey that she will later embark upon.
Her sister Deb, played by Lily James (“Baby Driver”, “Cinderella”), is younger, has a kid, used to work at a strip club, and works a steady job now at the local diner. We find out that she is struggling with her own life-changing dilemma that could also be extremely costly. Together, Ollie and Deb try to get out of their perspective ruts to live better, but they continually are met with harder challenges that work to break them.
I want to talk about Nia DaCosta’s refreshing dialogue and direction. Tessa Thompson’s character’s full name is Oleander. Oleander is a deadly bush-like plant that you often see driving down a highway. In Japan, Oleander is used as a fast-killing agent for suicide. It is highly poisonous and deadly especially to children, but has these beautiful pink flowers. It makes sense that the character’s name is Oleander. She is brilliant, but her life is filled with toxicity. When things go bad, she lets everything she has been working to fix go, and puts herself in danger. There are so many scenes in this movie after something bad has happened and then all you see is the empty road for a few seconds from the perspective of a car driving down it. I wondered if I was looking at the road or the Oleander. These decisions made me respect Nia DaCosta’s minimal and specific direction, because she puts the puzzle pieces together in an abstract way.
The music in Little Woods was authentic and transported me right into the part of South Dakota where the film takes place. “Deeper Well” by Emmylou Harris plays as Ollie runs around making moves to conjure up the money in time to save the house. The lull of the bass taps along as Deb, Ollie and Deb’s kid drive to Manitoba, Canada.
James Badge Dale plays the drunk antagonistic father to Deb’s kid and Ollie’s street connect for the oxycodone. He wears multiple hats in the film, from needy and broken alcoholic lover to reliable drug dealer. His performance felt authentic and natural. He lives on a cot in white walls that look like a hospital room. He eats plain ramen and drinks whiskey out of the bottle. His character is depressing and actually works to lift up Deb and Ollie’s situations because they look like they’re thriving compared to his character.
The independent film had great pacing, excellent direction, female country songs, and beautiful cinematography. Sometimes it’s nice to get away and watch a slightly uplifting, but mostly depressing film in a theatre or at home alone. Not all women overcome the forces that keep them down in a positive way. Tessa Thompson’s take on the female protagonist was raw and realistic, not over the top. She played Ollie through a dusty lens and let the script dictate how she would react to the way that she played that role.
Finally, “Little Woods” made me think critically about families that struggle to survive and to consider the humanity of the process of survival. The question that remained in my head after the film: How far is South Dakota from Manitoba, Canada?