Nia DaCosta’s feature debut Little Woods is a take on life as a single woman in a rural town ravaged by drugs, desolace, and desperation. Tessa Thompson plays half the powerful duo starring in this flick, as the resourceful Ollie. Ollie is just about to finish her probation period for running pills across the Canadian border, a criminal act she must engage in to order to support her ill mother. After allowing that burden to fall to her more responsible sister, Deb, played by Lily James, becomes pregnant by her unhelpful drug-addicted boyfriend Ian (James Badge Dale). After their mother passes away and Ollie finally has a chance for a new start by letting the bank seize their home and takin a new job recommended by her trusted probation officer (Lance Reddick), Ollie’s plans are deferred to help put a roof over her pregnant sister’s head.

Herein lies the reason for the film’s major heists: keeping the family home will cost them $3,000–money they  can’t get unless Ollie returns to selling drugs from across the border. Little Woods is a western in the form of tackling the major socio-economic problems that make daily life hard for the average American woman. The desolate, drab landscapesDaCosta’s Director of Photography employs give an authentic feel to what can easily be seen as a politically-driven film. The movie tackles the American healthcare system, the cost of having a child, the cost of abortion, the lack of jobs in towns like Little Woods, and so on. DaCosta is careful not to allow the film to become an advocacy project for better healthcare though–by lingering on the mundane moments of life in the town, and giving the film a slow-burning pace up to the stunning action, Little Woods is able to come off as a story of sisterhood and what it takes to just get by.

The story becomes a commentary on gender roles are affected by economic distress, as Ollie and Deb encounter mostly men who need something from them, or need to be taken care of. The sleepiness portrayed by the deft camerawork is what gives the film its western feel, as well as the love between the two sisters, who only have one another in their moment of crisis despite the resentments that slowly bubble up to the surface as the stress of their circumstances increase. The different element that Little Woods brings to the Western genre is that the antagonizing presence is not nature or encroaching enemies to territory; the antagonizing presence for Ollie and Deb is their lack of economic security and the power to change their situation without continuing a cycle of criminality and struggling to make ends meet.

These are very different “monsters” than what a viewer is used to in the Western genre, but Thompson makes the analogy work quite well, making an empathy-inducing argument for why good people do bad things. A large part of DaCosta’s ability to make that argument is Tessa Thompson and Lily James’ performances. Thompson and James embody sisters who love one another with abandon and can combine forces for survival. Their explosive interactions show the emotional range of both players. After seeing this film, many people will be excited to see what’s next for Thompson and DaCosta.

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