Films are a reflective medium. They present our world – our lives – back at us through skewed perspectives with a fresh realisation of how our society operates. Ever since the dawn of celluloid, cinema has been an art form that has sought to entertain while equally critiquing the world at large. Sometimes this is influential in all the wrong ways (see Birth of a Nation), and other times it helps shape a countries perspective about a war (see almost all the Vietnam focused war films from the 70’s). For historians, this reflection helps contextualise the world that once existed, allowing some kind of reality to be bottled up and memorialised, all ready to be taken out when necessary for further evaluation.

With this in mind, it’s worthwhile remembering that cinema as a whole is an inherently political medium, where (arguably) every film is a political statement that presents a point of view that yearns to manipulate the viewers emotions in whatever way it can. As with Birth of a Nation, that statement may not always be valuable, or as in the case of Captain Marvel, the presentation of the military becomes a subtle statement exploring the concept of jingoism. In the case of Nia DaCosta’s feature debut, Little Woods, the political statement of the dire reality of life in America for women is explored to powerful effect.

Tessa Thompson’s Ollie is coming to the end of her probation, having been caught for peddling drugs between Canada to her North Dakota home and selling them to those who can’t afford medical costs. Her adoptive mother has passed away, leaving the house to Ollie, while her sister Deb (Lily James) lives with her son in an illegal makeshift trailer park that exists in a rundown supermarket carpark. Work is scarce, life lacks quality, and there is a dour blanket that is draped across the town, suppressing any kind of hope that might otherwise break through the ever present cloud cover. Unfortunately for Ollie, there is still a mortgage that needs to be paid on the house, and after a string of foreclosure notices, she is forced into returning to the life of selling drugs to help make ends meet.

On the surface, Little Woods takes the tried and tested formula of gangster films and applies it to American life. The concept of ‘one last job’ is a tired one, but through DaCosta’s impressive script it’s given a new perspective – one that is depressingly mundane. After a decade of films that tread the same path as Little Woods – namely, that of downtrodden American lives being pushed into illegal or morally questionable areas because of horrendous inequality – it’s somewhat refreshing to see DaCosta present this crisis without histrionics or melodrama, avoiding any kind of maudlin trappings that may usually come easily with this kind of material. Instead, this is an all too familiar narrative, where people who simply want to exist, work a job, raise a family, and give back to society, are denied that opportunity because of circumstance and location. It’s a risky move to present inequality with a purely mundane sheen, but it’s one that works brilliantly for Little Woods.

There’s a true to life feel to Little Woods, with DaCosta putting all her faith in the acting talents of Tessa Thompson and Lily James, who both deliver grounded, lived in performances. Thompson is one of the finest actresses working today, proving that no matter the material, she’s consistently able to find the heart and soul of the character, honouring their personal journey beautifully. Lily James is great, begging the question why she hasn’t been given more roles like this. James Badge Dale is also impressive as Ian, Deb’s ex-partner and father to her child. An always welcome Lance Reddick also makes an appearance as Ollie’s parole officer.  

The relationship that Deb and Ian have is a volatile one – he works on a pipeline, spending his money on beer and sadness because there’s nothing else to do, while she simply exists trying to raise her son as best as possible. Even though they are separated, and clash regularly, a brief hook up has Deb pregnant again. Deb attempts to visit the doctor, and after being advised that it’ll take four to six weeks to even get an appointment, is notified by the clerk that it’ll cost at least $8,000 out of pocket to have a child. With nothing but empty paper bags and dirty linen to her name, Deb is left in a dangerous position. She can’t afford to have the child, is already worn thin trying to raise the son she has, and in turn, it’s impossible to get an abortion in her region. Reluctantly, she turns to Ollie for help.

What should be a level of depressing on par with The Tribe, turns out to more of a ‘matter of fact’ representation of what life is like for women in America today. Reproductive rights have been torn away from them. Healthcare is a luxury, not a right. Affordable housing is a myth. Secure jobs and safe employment is not out of reach, but is limited to built-up areas away from rural establishments. After the events have unfurled, and the closing credits start to roll, the feeling you’re left with is one of depressing familiarity. There is nothing new in Little Woods that hasn’t been told before, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a story worth retelling. If anything, the mere fact that this has become mundane and familiar is reason enough to be aghast at what Ollie and Deb go through to simply exist.

Little Woods is a depressingly real story that takes place every day in America. Yet, it sits in film history as another chapter in the long lineage of films that have essayed modern America as a whole; each one exploring the way the various systems that are put in place to keep society operating end up oppressing the middle and lower class. One would hope that any politicians who happen to watch Little Woods would seek to implement genuine change that would help those in need, but if they aren’t shocked into action by the stark reality of inequality in America today, then a small independent film is going to do little to change their views. As frustrating and upsetting as that is, it is worthwhile noting that Little Woods, and many other films of its type, will live on in history as reminders of how appalling conditions in America were during the early 2000’s.

Director: Nia DaCosta

Cast: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, James Badge Dale

Writer: Nia DaCosta