Big Worries, Little Woods

Hard-scrabble women face a gusher of obstacles in North Dakota oil country.

Little Woods is a story of two sisters. Ollie (Tessa Thompson) has a makeshift day job selling snacks and odds and ends out of the back of her pickup truck to workers in the North Dakota oil fields. Her off-the-books business is supplying opioids and the occasional fraudulent Canadian medical insurance card to those same oil workers.

Ollie’s younger half-sister Deb (Lily James) waits tables in a diner, lives in a mobile home, and cares for her ailing son. Like Ollie, she also dispenses Oxycontin to needy oil workers on the side. As the film opens, Deb learns she is again pregnant by Ian (James Badge Dale), her child’s irresponsible father. Incidentally, both sisters are on probation. Their sole asset is their late mother’s modest home, now in the initial stages of foreclosure.

Ollie and Deb’s only realistic chance to raise the $5,682 to forestall the foreclosure, or, in Deb’s case, to afford the $8,000 for uninsured hospital natal care (or somewhat less for an abortion in Canada), is staring them right in the face — go full-time into the dangerous illegal opioid market for just long enough to make their nut. Welcome to Hard Times, U.S.A.

Not long ago we made note of a subgenre of down-to-earth, indie-style dramas about people in financial distress. We gave such films the ironic label Recession Specials, because in the aftermath of the 2009 economic meltdown thousands of ordinary people — some of them seriously mauled by financial institutions after being hoodwinked into taking bad loans — were left dazed by the experience. These days, however, poor people seem to be in a permanent recession. We might as well call Little Woods a “Plutocratic Oligarchy Non-Invitee Special,” because characters like Ollie and Deb, for reasons of their own, are locked out with no hope of getting into some semblance of the “Middle Class Dream.”

Writer-director Nia DaCosta, a TV production hand making her feature debut, keeps a tight lid on Ollie and Deb’s struggles. Every setback, including a few that would be deal-breakers for fully employed, middle-class citizens, is treated almost as a given, part of the price they’re paying to be alive.

Of course their mother let her house go into foreclosure — she was sick and couldn’t make do. Of course even Ollie’s sympathetic parole officer (Lance Reddick) has to verify each and every thing his client says — he knows she’s probably staying alive by dealing drugs. Of course both sisters are treated like throwaway accessories by the men in their lives. Each man one of the sisters might bump into — at the supermarket, at a drilling site — has to be notified firmly, that no, she is not an oil-town prostitute. Of course the oil workers themselves appear to be the modern-day equivalent of peasants, with virtually no rights. Of course Deb’s little son can’t get the care he needs because it costs too much. And of course, cheap opioids are easily available, especially from a pill-pushing physician across the border. Ollie’s response is to make plans to move to Spokane for work; Deb’s thinking has not gotten quite that far. But they both persevere.

Ollie and Deb’s fight for survival is a story Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Jesse Moss (The Overnighters), Courtney Hunt (Frozen River), Michael Moore (Capitalism: A Love Story), Courtney Balaker (Little Pink House), and Sean Baker (The Florida Project) know well, in common with other socially conscious filmmakers. Life is hard and getting harder for people without obvious advantages.

Thompson, who more than held up her end of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, is a busy actor on TV and in movies. James, born and raised in England, is a veteran of Downton Abbey and other TV series. Their characters in DaCosta’s Little Woods know that they are not going to change the world, but their performances, alongside DaCosta’s hard-won righteous realism, are enough to make someone who sees this powerful “sleeper” piece want to rise up and do just that. Who could ask for anything more from a tale of two hard-luck women in the Empty Quarter?


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