One thing about the Western genre that is tiring is how it is traditionally masculine. Films set in modern day that depict Western films and films set in the Wild Wild West are often told from a male perspective. But thank goodness for writer/director Nia DaCosta who created Little Woods, a modernized Western that focuses on women navigating their way through lawless terrain. It’s also a portrait of working-class America that is harrowing yet unsentimental. Little Woods will surely be one of the best films of the year.
The story follows Ollie (Tessa Thompson), an ex-con who is attempting to put her days of selling illegal prescription drugs across the Canadian border behind her. She is looking to get a new job so that she can escape her small town of Little Woods, North Dakota and gain a fresh start. But her plans comes to a grinding halt when her mother dies and her sister Deb (Lily James) becomes pregnant. To make matters worse, Ollie has a week to pay off her home’s mortgage. Also, Deb is unable to afford another child and the unborn child’s father Ian (James Badge Dale) is largely out of the picture. Left with no other options, Ollie must return to the life she has desperately tried to leave behind.
What sets Little Woods apart from other films about working-class women entering dangerous territory, like Winter’s Bone and Frozen River, is its depiction of sisterhood. Because the two sisters have no other family but themselves, they must support each other through thick and thin. Ollie and Deb don’t always make the wisest choices. In fact, the decisions they make tend to fluster each other. But they still are there for one another regardless. It may sound cliche but that’s what makes the story so powerful.
It also helps that the actresses playing the two sisters craft a realistic sibling dynamic. Tessa Thompson is impressive as the headstrong yet skittish Ollie, proving that she deserves to have more starring vehicles heading her way. Meanwhile, Lily James is a quiet scene stealer as the sweet yet self-flagellating Deb. While both actresses have amazed us in everything else they’ve done, they manage to be in top form in this film.
They are the center of a feminist Western tale that is gritty yet never exploitative. Even when there are scenes that seem they are going into grim territory, things quickly turn on a dime. This makes Little Woods quite refreshing since Westerns tend to rehash the tired trope of women being victimized and/or lacking agency. Even the terrific Hell or High Water, which is another modernized Western, doesn’t do anything interesting with its female characters.
However, despite Little Woods being a modern Western, there are no gun fights or cowboy hats being worn. But Thompson and James still make it engaging by demonstrating the strong willed nature of their characters. The two sisters may not have much in terms of financial or even health resources. However, they still possess the will to survive and attempt to do through the use of their wits and intellect. As a result of their need to persevere, you want them to see their journey through until the end.
A strong depiction of sisterhood in an unforgiving terrain, Little Woods is a worthy entry in the Western genre effortlessly anchored by its two charismatic leading actresses. What it may lack in action-packed spectacle, it makes up for in moral-driven storytelling. Since this is Nia DaCosta’s feature-film debut, hopefully, we don’t have to wait too long for her sophomore effort.