By Nicole Ackman
Nia DaCosta’s “Little Woods” speaks to the political and economic climate of 2019 better than almost any film to be released this year. This survival drama depicts two sisters, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James), attempting to make ends meet in a poverty-stricken town in North Dakota after the death of their adoptive mother. Ollie is at the end of her probation and is trying to avoid falling back into smuggling oxycodone from Canada, while single mother Deb tries to deal with an unwanted pregnancy.
The film is an impressive directorial debut from DaCosta, who also wrote the screenplay. DaCosta builds tension throughout the film as the two sisters experience one hardship after another until it seems impossible that there could be a happy ending. “Little Woods” has a lot to say about the issues with healthcare in the United States, the opioid crisis, and the way that people are pulled into and kept in a cycle of selling drugs. DaCosta makes her points even more poignant by casing these very real issues within a story in which we come to care about the central figures.
“Little Woods” isn’t a perfect film, but it certainly is an indication that Nia DaCosta is a director to keep our eye on. While it has much to say about the United States that is particularly relevant, it is also a movie about the lengths that sisters will go to for each other.
Both Thompson and James deliver what might be career-best performances as sisters dealing with poverty and loss. It’s a grittier role than the rest of James’s career and she more than proves her talent. Thompson is fantastic as she imbues her character with both a sense of exhaustion and impressive resilience.
Ollie and Deb are two of the most unglamorous female roles seen on film this year. When the two trek through the woods, they don’t have perfect hair and makeup and Thompson spends most of the film in a sweatshirt. It’s refreshing to see women whose appearance reflects their situation, rather than the overly beautified depictions of women in rough circumstances that we often see on film. Perhaps it’s because the film is directed by a woman that we actually see the physical toll their life has taken on them.
“Little Woods” isn’t a perfect film, but it certainly is an indication that Nia DaCosta is a director to keep our eye on. While it has much to say about the United States that is particularly relevant, it is also a movie about the lengths that sisters will go to for each other. If you’re looking to catch up on some films in 2019 that were overlooked, “Little Woods” is a great place to start.