“That’s because he’s a drug dealer.” With those plainspoken words, writer-director Nia DaCosta tells us everything we need to know about Ollie (Tessa Thompson), a young woman who’s just been awakened in the middle of the night by an acquaintance banging on her back door who wants to know if she’s still in the OxyContin business. He says his other source charges much higher prices, prompting Ollie to let him know that she’s not actually a drug dealer, just a desperate person doing what she can to make ends meet.
That theme runs throughout Little Woods, DaCosta’s debut feature. The film’s understated depiction of life in rural, working-class North Dakota through the eyes of Ollie and her adopted sister, Deb (Lily James), engages with a handful of hot-button topical issues: There’s the opioid crisis, of course, but health care, reproductive rights, and border crossings are also woven in to the story. These points are not always made subtly, but they are presented organically. And the sense of place DaCosta establishes in the film is so specific and so tangible, it’s incredible to learn that she had never been to North Dakota until she started work on this film. (DaCosta was born and raised in New York City.) The control DaCosta shows over the tone of this film is remarkable for a first-time director, and everything from the costumes to the color temperature serve its somber, hardscrabble mood.
A sense of control is also very important to Ollie, a person who takes the burdens of others and makes them her own almost by instinct. As the film opens, Ollie is 10 days from finishing her probation, and has sworn never to go back to her old routine of sneaking across the Canadian border, buying prescription drugs, and smuggling them back to sell to the oil rig workers who make up most of the town of Williston, North Dakota. Ollie never enjoyed dealing, but she was good at it, and used the money to support the family as her and Deb’s mother was dying of cancer. Now their mother is gone, and Ollie finally has a chance to get out of their hometown. Then Deb comes to her sister with a secret: She’s pregnant by her son’s father, an unemployed ex-con named Ian (James Badge Dale). She does not want to have the baby, and couldn’t afford the hospital bills if she did. Not only that, but Deb and her young son are squatting in a tent city in a parking lot, and Ollie and Deb’s mom’s house is going into foreclosure. So, as usual, Ollie steps in. “I’ll figure something out,” she tells Deb, the air heavy with the unspoken understanding of what that “something” will be.
The best point of reference when describing Little Woods is Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, another rural neo-noir set in a forgotten corner of the U.S. about a tough-minded young woman with thorny family issues. (For her part, DaCosta describes the film as a Western.) Also like that film, Little Woods revolves around a remarkable lead performance: Thompson shows her range as an actress in this film in ways that, as fun as they can be, she just doesn’t get to in any of her blockbuster roles. And she’s up for the challenge, giving great interiority to the character of Ollie by conveying the character’s past, her hopes and dreams, and the worries that weigh on her mind with subtle expressions and body language. Together, she and DaCosta create some truly breathtaking moments of suspense, like the scene where Ollie receives a surprise visit from her parole officer Carter (Lance Reddick) while she’s in the middle of counting drug money.
The rest of the performances in the film are solid, if not quite as layered as Thompson’s. James comes close as the fragile Deb, who doesn’t have as rich of an inner life as Ollie but whose face when she’s told the cost of childbirth in the state of North Dakota is a heartbreaking indictment of the American healthcare system in itself. The chemistry between the two leads is both easy and slightly combative—in other words, realistic for siblings. Towards the end of the film, they tell each other “I love you,” and something real and profound passes between them in that moment. That’s not always true of DaCosta’s dialogue, which, in its eagerness to establish theme, occasionally comes across as contrived despite the talent of the actors delivering it. But, given that this is DaCosta’s first feature, that issue will almost certainly be refined and resolved in time. If this is her starting line, imagine what she’ll be able to do once she hits her stride.