There’s nothing like a debut film that announces the arrival of a fascinating talent with a one-of-a-kind voice. Films such as this — Brick, The Childhood of a Leader, Citizen Kane — are bold and entertaining in their freshness. It’s apparent from a single viewing of Little Woods that it is such a film, and writer-director Nia DaCosta is such a talent.
Little Woods tells the story of two sisters named Ollie and Deb who live in poverty. Ollie used to sell Oxycontin, but gave that up after an arrest. Now she sells sandwiches and coffee to oil workers in her small North Dakota town. Deb just found out that she is pregnant, and scrambles to find a way to have an abortion. Ollie tries to support her sister’s financial needs by returning to selling Oxycontin.
Like a lot of great films, Little Woods makes adroit usage of genre. DaCosta has talked about her love for Westerns, and Ollie does feel like a modern-day, less violent version of retired killer William Munny from Unforgiven. But there are no gunfights to be found in this film, and little of the violence or celebration/exploration of masculinity that defined many classic Westerns. Instead, the violence comes primarily in the form of words spat in fierce arguments amidst explorations and celebrations of sisterhood and how hard it can be to navigate the world as a working-class woman.
DaCosta’s inversions of typical generic beats extends to the film’s style. In classic Hollywood films, high angle shots connote weakness while low angle shots connote power. But in a critical early scene between Ollie and her probation officer Carter, he is shown in a high angle shot as he warns her not to sell Oxycontin while Ollie’s worried response is recorded in a low angle shot. This reversal of film grammar makes you pay closer attention to Little Woods, and every word that the characters say.
DaCosta has a Master’s in playwriting, and in an interview with IONCINEMA she talked about how in playwriting “you really have to look at every single thing that’s said.” This economical approach to writing extends to her screenplay for this film. Every line of dialogue either advances the story forward, provides character details, or weaves a rich backstory. More often than not it does all three.
One quote that defines the greatest strength of Little Woods comes from Roger Ebert. While delivering a speech at a ceremony honoring his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he called movies “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” A large segment of the audiences that see this movie will probably not be from North Dakota, or deal with addictions problems, or even be women. But DaCosta and her filmmaking team generate great empathy for Ollie and her sister, and give that portion of the audience a way to understand their lives. On the other side of the coin, you can easily imagine a young working-class woman from North Dakota feeling a sense of power at seeing her life and world treated with such empathy and understanding on the big screen.
DaCosta’s next project is a “spiritual sequel” to the classic horror film Candyman that is set in the now gentrified neighborhood where the original film took place. But until that film comes out in 2020, audiences can watch Little Woods and marvel at the emergence of an intriguing new director.
Little Woods will screen at the IU Cinema on January 31 and February 2, with writer-director Nia DaCosta scheduled to be present at the January 31st showing. These screenings are part of the series Nia DaCosta: Spirited and Bold Storytelling, which will include an extended onstage interview with DaCosta on February 1 for the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Series.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.