Nia DaCosta's 'Little Woods' explores two sisters caught in the crosshairs of poverty, isolation and drug running

The director’s debut feature shines a light on women fighting to survive on the margins of America’s modern West.
Image: Little Woods film
From left, Little Woods film with Lily James and Tessa Thompson.Neon

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By Kellee Terrell

There’s a reason why Ollie, brilliantly played by Tessa Thompson, looks so exhausted in Nia DaCosta’s heartbreaking debut film "Little Woods."

Not only is she grieving the recent death of her ailing mother, whose floor she still sleeps on at night, but Ollie also has two weeks to miraculously come up with almost $6,000 if she wants to save her mother’s crumbling home from the grasp of foreclosure. This is no simple feat for the parolee, who lives in an isolated North Dakota fracking town where jobs for women are few and far between.

DaCosta, 29, the director of the film, tells NBCBLK that while she’s always been inspired by iconic directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, “Little Woods” is an ode to classic Western films. In "Little Woods," which had a limited release in theaters Friday, she replaces macho cowboys with two bold women tackling an unruly frontier in order to break their family's cycle of poverty and despair. Given that this is a perspective rarely seen on-screen (especially through the lens of a black woman), “Little Woods” can easily be described as audacious.

“Honestly, I thought I was never gonna work again after making this film, you just never now,” the first-time feature filmmaker said. “I haven’t read one review yet.”

Nia DaCosta, from right, and moderator Chelsea Sanders speak onstage after the Los Angeles Pink Carpet premiere of "Little Woods."Rachel Murray / Getty Images file

Well if DaCosta gathers up the courage to go to the Rotten Tomatoes website, she’d know that her film holds an impressive 97 percent approval rating from critics — and with good reason. It’s a sobering and touching cautionary tale of what happens when we fail women.

In “Little Woods,” Ollie dreams of escaping and building a new life in Seattle, but her deep sense of responsibility is only exacerbated by her estranged younger sister Deb (played by Lily James), who is pregnant, in need of an abortion and squatting in an abandoned recreational vehicle with her son. Not surprisingly, the closest clinic is hundreds of miles away and the procedure costs hundreds of dollars neither one has.

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Now, there is a solution to their mounting problems, but it requires that Ollie do what landed her in prison the last time — running prescription drugs like Oxytocin from Canada to the United States. Maybe, this time around, being more reluctant and less cocky, she won’t get caught.

Yes, “Little Woods” is undeniably dark, rarely allowing the women to catch a break, but it’s not completely void of optimism either. Near the film’s end, with their drugs in tow, as the sisters walk toward whatever is waiting on the other side, there’s a sense that something might finally work out for the duo. But be warned: DaCosta denies her audience of any real closure as her final frame bravely holds still on a wooden fence separating both countries’ borders.

“I did want it to be hopeful,” DaCosta said. “I showed how these two sisters, who had once lost each other, found each other. And I showed them physically crossing the border, but I didn’t want to show you a happy ending because that would have been unrealistic.”

While most writer-directors are urged to write “what they know,” for DaCosta, who was born in the hustle and bustle of New York City and its limitless possibilities, “Little Woods” was an exercise in exploring a world dramatically different than her own. After reading an article about North Dakota and the stark inequality these communities faced, DaCosta felt compelled to tell this story.

“‘Little Woods’ came out of a desire to want to worry about people who are not like me and not where I’m from,” the director explained.

“I did the research, spent time in North Dakota and talked to the people in these towns. And I wanted to show all of it. The poverty, the lack of access women had to basic reproductive health care, the isolation and the bureaucracy of just getting a doctor’s appointment.”

Little Woods film with Tessa Thompson.Neon

Despite North Dakota having a black population of roughly 2 percent, DaCosta was intentional about exploring race on the frontier, telling NBCBLK that Ollie was always meant to be a mixed-race woman. However, her approach to addressing racism wasn’t explicit. Throughout the film, Ollie delicately straddles a complicated line of being welcomed into this homogeneous white world, all while being a lonely outsider easily reminded that she’ll always be different. (The only other memorable black character is her parole officer Carter, portrayed by Lance Reddick of “The Wire.”)

“We are used to filmmakers telling us what it means to be black in America and we’re always instructing it, like we’re teaching a lesson. I didn’t want to do that," she explained.

“I went to private school, a very white private school, so I know what it’s like to be the only black person in those rooms and even if they aren’t calling you the n-word, I always knew that I was black.”

In 2015, DaCosta's “Little Woods” script was one of the 12 projects chosen for the coveted Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs, where she met Thompson (who also serves as the film’s executive producer.) Shot in 2017, the feature debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, garnering rave reviews and winning the Nora Ephron Award. Like most indies, “Little Woods” may have had a “tiny budget,” but it doesn’t look or feel like it cut a lot of corners. However, DaCosta’s next project has a much larger budget: The remake of Clive Barker’s classic horror film “Candyman,” written and produced by Oscar winner Jordan Peele.

The film is in pre-production and expected to debut next summer.

“I feel great, but nervous,” DaCosta admitted about filling in such big shoes. “I’m so excited to be able to take something [Jordan] has written and direct it myself. There is a lot of pressure because everyone expects genius from Jordan and ‘Candyman’ is so important, but I feel confident about my ability to tell this story and do right by it.”

DaCosta is also enthusiastic about the future of black women in Hollywood, especially given just how deep the talent pool is and the range of stories these creators are ready to tell.

“There is this pressure for us to only tell stories about slavery and the civil rights era, but there are many of us that want to tell our stories and as a community, we’re pushing the door open, together, even as we do different things. It’s exciting to see all these new perspectives and possibilities.”

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