Choice and Limitations in Nia Dacosta's Little Woods
Opening and closing with shots of the Canadian border, Nia Dacosta’s Little Woods deals with the ideas of separation and choice- right and wrong, family and self, and the movement between them. How can you take moral action when your choices are severely limited? What is worth doing for your family; what is worth doing for yourself?
These are questions that Little Woods does not explore in a hypothetical, philosophical sense but presents the real-life reckoning of. Set in a small town in North Dakota, the film centers around sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) who are separately dealing with their mother’s recent death. Ollie is on probation after illegally transporting meds across the Canadian border, and with her probation up in less than two weeks, she is determined to leave her previous life behind. She is interviewing for a new job elsewhere and vows to abandon her old sources of income such as the moving of materials over the border and illegally selling meds. Deb, meanwhile, has just found out that she is pregnant, an unpleasant revelation seeing as she has no money and is already living in a trailer taking care of her young son by herself. She turns to Ollie, who suggests that Deb could live in their mother’s house, but in order to prevent its scheduled foreclosure, they need to come up with money in a week. This prompts Ollie to return to her old illegal methods, while Deb becomes increasingly distressed after learning how much having the baby would cost her.
Dacosta depicts these women within a world that is intricately detailed but never feels manufactured. Washed in dull tans, cool blues and faded greys, there is a quiet exhaustion and sense of heaviness that defines the town and the two main characters. This is expertly reflected by the actors, particularly Thompson, who plays Ollie with a developed complexity and simultaneous weariness and strength. The film’s greatest power is in the little moments that allow the actors to simply breathe as the characters and flesh out their lives. When Ollie sweetly jokes with her nephew on her lap or Deb anxiously works her way up to telling the father of her baby about her pregnancy, it feels like peeking through a door at a real person and effortlessly evokes investment in them.
This space that the characters are given to exist and the nuanced acting of the cast allows the stakes of the story to be conveyed, but I only wish that these stakes were better communicated through the film overall. While the stress felt on the characters is clear, the pacing and sequence do not effectively reflect it, save for a few punctuated moments such as when Deb goes to get her fake ID card and the air is immediately tense with the implicit but clear possibility of violence. If the pressure felt by Ollie and Deb had been better translated through the pulse of the film, it would have been more consistently and viscerally felt from an audience perspective rather than just sympathized with.
Regardless, Dacosta succeeds in depicting the constant bubbling of stress and fear brought on by poverty, especially for women, and she does it with understanding rather than judgement. Ollie tells Deb, “Your choices are only as good as your options are,” and this is repeatedly proven throughout the movie, as Ollie and Deb’s illegal and dangerous choices are clearly shown as being tied to the crushing circumstances that they are in. Their financial difficulty is compounded by their status as women, the danger that they face worsened by the constant threat of sexual violence and the lack of access to reproductive healthcare. Both sisters want to start a new safe new life away from dangerous and illegal activities, but when they desperately need money to create that future, how are they supposed to get it? Dacosta shows that poverty causes people to use the forces they are trying to escape in order to escape them.