There is a widespread and poorly considered tendency to romanticize modern rural America, from Carhartt commercials to the new comedy series Bless This Mess, which features Lake Bell and Dax Shepard as naive city slickers inventing a new life in Nebraska.
But in her feature film debut, Little Woods, writer-director Nia DaCosta dispenses Waldenesque illusion in favor of a look at the quiet desperation that comes with being poor and a woman in middle of nowhere. The result is a snapshot of two sisters caught in the gritty binds of Little Woods, North Dakota, a miserable natural gas boomtown with little more to offer besides too many men and not enough well-paying jobs.
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Tessa Thompson plays Ollie (short for Oleander), an industrious hustler nearing the end of her parole looking to start a new life if she gets a promising job in Spokane, Washington. Ollie used to make a living running opioids across the Canadian border before she was caught. She lives in a foreclosed house that belonged to her mother, who died of a terminal illness.
Her sister, Deb (Lily James) is a waitress who lives with her small son Johnny in a trailer parked in a lot with a bunch of other trailers belonging to people who can’t afford anything else.
The two women find themselves calling on desperate measures. Ollie can’t bring herself to leave until she knows her sister and nephew are safe, and so she plunges back into the opioid business once more, just long enough to make a haul that will pay off half the $5,800 needed to keep the bank from seizing the family home. Deb is pregnant, and in need of an abortion. The nearest American clinic is hundreds of miles away, a back alley arrangement has fallen through. Without health insurance, it costs anywhere between $8,000-$12,000 just to give birth in a hospital.
DaCosta, who is slated to direct the coming remake of Candyman, constructs the shots in Little Woods in a way that amplifies the town’s suffocating limitations. This is not the rural America of Terrence Malick, full of open spaces and ripe with possibility. Instead, it’s desolate and depressed, and danger lurks everywhere in the form of men who don’t respect boundaries. When Ollie goes lurking about a truck stop in the middle of the night to serve new customers, it’s absolutely harrowing. Thompson plays Ollie with taut, barely contained fear, curled up like a spring, keeping the audience waiting for the moment her little life, and the possibility of a better one, collapses into nothing.
DaCosta’s vision of the American West has more in common with the one playwright and actress Heidi Schreck brings to light in What the Constitution Means to Me (currently running on Broadway) as she speaks about her great-grandmother, a Scandinavian mail-order bride her great-grandfather ordered from a catalog. It’s a vision where women are scarce and their rights and safety are scarcer. Schreck’s ancestors lived in Washington, where they earned a living as loggers clearing the state’s untamed natural resource. Schreck uses What the Constitution Means to Me to reflect on the ways the women in her family were barely people in the eyes of the U.S. Constitution, but regarded as children or property under the purview of men.
In the generations since, not much has changed, depending on where you go. In Little Woods, the natural resource is natural gas instead of wood, but the threats to female bodies are just as common, the violence against them just as casual and routine. Ollie gets roughed up by the local opioid magnate when she briefly starts selling again. Deb faces danger the night she tries to procure a fake Canadian health card that will allow her to get an abortion in Winnipeg, Manitoba, covered by the country’s national health insurance.
DaCosta draws her audience in by daring them to hope for better, and closes with a peaceful shot of the wilderness that bridges Canada with the United States. But she never romanticizes the wildness of the West. Too many women are still falling victim to its ills.