The opioid crisis looms large over Little Woods, a modest but intensely empathetic first film by writer–director Nia DaCosta. But you won't see lurid footage of bewildered tots hovering near the prone bodies of parents immobilized by Oxycontin. Instead, the movie draws its drama from the underground economy in which the prescription drug crisis thrives, and the perpetual state of emergency lived by residents of former boomtowns faded into ghost towns by recession or corporate flight.
DaCosta drops us inside the lives of two estranged sisters banding together to avoid eviction from their late mother's house in the North Dakota backwater of Little Woods. One sibling is a perennial screw-up, the other a resourceful survivor; both temperaments are shaped by the drastically limited choices available to them. The young women are in deep trouble, and as the movie opens they're far from a tight family unit. Deb (played by an oddly cast but capable Lily James) is a single mother who's newly drug-free but pregnant for the second time by her son's deadbeat dad (James Badge Dale).
The movie revolves around Deb's adopted sister, Ollie, who's played with understated smarts by Tessa Thompson. Ollie is a practical sort who, over the one week they have to come up with a hefty mortgage payment, mops up her sister's messes. And she does so while attempting to make good on her own past mistakes as a small-time drug dealer who moonlights guiding clients over the border to get illicit health care in Canada. On the cusp of clearing her probation, Ollie scratches out a more legit living in food delivery and tries to extricate herself from the opioid business that turns the otherwise decent people of Little Woods into predators or no-hopers.
DaCosta calls her feature debut a modern Western, but that's a bit of a stretch. If anything, Little Woods plays as a quietly feminist thriller with a procedural bent, if that's what you can call the endless grind of trying to stay afloat. The film wrings severe beauty from a desolate landscape of cavernous nocturnal parking lots and rickety plywood interiors. Thematically and visually, Little Woods is of a piece with Courtney Hunt's 2008 Frozen River, Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy (2008), and Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (2010) — intimate realist dramas with a touch of the Grimm fairytale, made by women about women struggling to rise above lives hemmed in by danger and deprivation.
DaCosta's movie is, to the best of my knowledge, the first in this sub-genre to be made by a black woman with a black woman in the lead, and to her credit she doesn't make a big fuss of that fact, or that Ollie is far more competent than her sister. As Ollie and Deb make their way (yes, through a dark forest filled with peril) to the border for one more perilous run, the film touches on topical issues like abortion, reproductive rights and sexual assault. For the most part, though, DaCosta has a light touch: Rather than belabor the sociology, she immerses us in the sisters' endless struggle to surmount the multiplying obstacles to their survival. With the exception of one sympathetic black probation officer (Lance Reddick) who's firmly planted in Ollie's corner, it's men — parasitic, predatory, or both — who give the two young women the most grief.
If there's a weakness in Little Woods it's a tendency (not unusual in a first film) to have the characters verbalize what DaCosta has already so ably shown us. By the end, no one needs to tell us that "Your choices are only as good as your options." Does the film tie up Ollie and Deb's travails too neatly at the end? Perhaps, but they've earned themselves something like a happy ending. In any event, DaCosta's next film, for Jordan Peele, is a reboot of Candyman, which will surely take us back to her dark places.