Female filmmakers, including Kelly Reichardt and Chloé Zhao, are currently making some of the most uniquely observed and trenchant films about the contemporary American West. Add Nia DaCosta, who makes her feature directorial debut with the arresting “Little Woods,” to that list.
Tessa Thompson stars as Ollie, a weary young woman trying to make it through her last week of probation on drug-smuggling charges. She scrapes by selling coffee to the men who work the oil rigs in the town of Little Woods in North Dakota, dreaming of a job in Spokane. But her sister Deb (Lily James) is pregnant again, their house is in foreclosure after their mother’s death, and there are bad men lurking.
Ollie returns to the life, trading coffee cups for oxy pills, selling to the oilmen who work through their chronic injuries, unable to see doctors due to long shifts and restrictive insurance. The vulnerable, messy Deb can’t trust her ex, can’t afford to give birth, and the nearest abortion clinic is hundreds of miles away. The sisters’ only salvation lies beyond the northern border.
It’s refreshing to see Thompson in this rougher, tougher role. It’s some of the best work of her career, and she is the heart of the film. With a confident eye and economy of storytelling, DaCosta crafts a fiercely feminist and sensitive family portrait that fearlessly takes on the capitalist rot at the core of the American healthcare system.
Rated: R, for language and some drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Starts April 19, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West L.A.