Contemporary social realism films from the USA, like much of social realism cinema in general, focuses on the lives of the poor and marginalized, and often involve the potential loss of a home or need for extra money for medical bills (the latter being sadly a problem relegated to the USA). These parts of America, often referred to as 'fly-over states', have suffered most from the loss of jobs and inadequate assistance, leaving most people living on the verifiable edge, and often turning to crime to maintain the most bare of existences.
Nia DaCosta's feature debut Little Woods (for which she deservedly won the Nora Ephron Award at Tribeca last year) looks at such a situation, in which two sisters find themselves in dire straits, and have no alternative but to resort to criminal activity to try and make their lives better. Alongside films such as Frozen River and Winter's Bone, Little Woods sees the situation through the eyes of women, whose burden of care and extra vulnerability among the poor classes gives us another means of understanding the precarious (to say the least) situation and the extra routes that must be navigated.
Ollie (Tessa Thompson) is nearing the end of her probation; she was caught smuggling drugs across the Canadian border to North Dakota, and she is determined not to get pulled into that life again, and secures an interview for a job in Spokane. Her sister Deb (Lily James), a single mother with an abusive ex-boyfriend, tries to keep her life intact despite living in a trailer with barely enough income even for that. After the death of their mother, they have a week to pull together money for the mortgage so that Deb and her son can live there; but then Deb learns she is pregnant, but she is neither financially nor emotionally capable of having another child, and the only way Ollie can help her it to go back into drug smuggling, so that Deb can get an abortion, and she and her son can live in the house.
DaCosta does not rush her story, letting exposition fold out in small moments and sparse dialogue that enhances the sisters' dire situation, and points out the myriad of flaws and pitfalls in a system that leaves the poor with virtually no options. Ollie looked after their mother in her final days and still sleeps on the floor of her room, as if returning to her bedroom means returning to that old life that she is desperately trying to escape. Deb continues to ignore notices of removal on her trailer, not because she is uncaring, but because she has no money to give anyway, and where else can she go? The men around them all want something, or refuse to give what they should; violence both sexual and otherwise is a recurring concern, and they are constantly told, indirectly, that their concerns do not matter.
When Ollie does start dealing again, the moments of exchange are fast and furtive. Ollie does what she must with a quiet resignation, though she does it still. Even though she is doing it for Deb, she admits that in the past, there was a thrill in the criminal activity. Deb wants to be a good mother and provide a decent life, and another child is just not an option. But what options do they have? Pregnancy alone costs a fortune; the only way Ollie can start a new life is to move to another state.
Both Thompson and James give exceptional performances. Ollie may be a doer as oppose to a dreamer, but the moments when she dares to let herself hope versus when she knows she does not dare to, are subtle yet striking. Deb wants so much to do better by her son and herself, but she can't help but slip back into bad habits, and make stupid mistakes when she's trying to do the right thing. Their relationship is complicated: loving yet resentful, committed yet uneven. Ollie is risking everything for Deb, and Deb knows she must live up to that risk. Neither woman is comfortable in their current lives, but Ollie is trying to find a way out of a place in which she is only semi-welcome, and Deb is just trying to make the smallest of improvements.
With a minimal yet haunting score, and cinematography that highlights the bleak environment, both physical and emotional, with rare moments of love and connection between the sisters, Little Woods is an assured debut, tinged with moments of anger, strength, frustration, and a glimmer of hope that comes from doing that you need to do to help those you love, even if it means going against a system that does not want you to hope.
Little Woods opens in select cities in the USA this Friday, April 19th.