By Josiah Wampfler
It is unfortunately all to rare to see films that realistically deal with poverty and deal with it in a way that recognizes it as a systemic problem largely outside the control of the individuals and families caught up in it. “Little Woods”, from first-time filmmaker Nia DaCosta, is one of the rare films. As DaCosta’s own characters recognize in the film, poverty is a cycle and individual choices only do so much when a system of generational income inequality is standing in your way.
The film centers on Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) as they struggle to pick up the pieces after their mother’s death. Ollie is a few days away from the end of her probation. She got caught running prescription drugs across the U.S.-Canada border, something she was pulled into doing when her mother was sick. Deb, living in trailer parked in the parking lot of a shuttered department store with her son, finds out she is pregnant once again. She needs an abortion, but the closest place to get one is hundreds of miles away and she doesn’t have the money to afford the procedure anyways. On top of all the two have to deal with, the one thing they have in the world of any value – their mother’s house – is being foreclosed on.
“Little Woods” shows how expensive it is to be poor. It shows how many times, the only options available to people who find themselves in the hole of poverty is to keep on digging deeper. And by setting the film in rural North Dakota, DaCosta shows the unique struggles poverty presents in such a desolate location when you have few friends, even less opportunities for employment and an entire system working against you. I have seen some audience members claim that the film deals tries to deal with “too many social justice issues”, but this denies the reality of poor people in Ollie and Deb’s situations. The simple fact is, their lack of money means they will be confronted with these issues more than others. They are not insulated from these issues by class position like – I presume – many of the people making these claims.
No, “Little Woods” is the rare film that presents a super realistic picture of poverty. And in doing so, DaCosta also recognizes the bleakness of it. It is not the typical Hollywood bleakness usually associated with films about drugs, poverty or “social issues”, but a subdued bleakness. Because the most depressing part is realizing that none of this is shocking or new to the characters. They’ve been dealing with these types of situations their entire lives. As you’ll sometimes hear around my own part of rural America: “Same shit, different day.”
What truly saves the film from being bogged down in the bleakness of the situation is the performances of Tessa Thompson and Lily James. Thompson gives a lead performance I’ve been waiting to see her get the opportunity to give. And James is a revelation. She adopts a look, an accent (a pretty damn accurate Midwestern accent at that) and an essence I have never seen from her. The relationship between their two characters, though strained for various reasons, is the anchor to the entire film. What both of them are willing to do for each other and their family is inspiring.
“Little Woods” unfortunately was criminally under-seen when it came out in theaters (largely because it didn’t get the distribution it needed). I hope now that it is available to stream that it will find more of an audience. Poverty is one of the most important issues facing the country and I believe that films such as “Little Woods” have a role to play in spreading the empathy that ultimately will lead to solutions.