“I forgot to be scared,” Oleander (Tessa Thompson) tells her sister Deb (Lily James) in Nia DaCosta’s directorial debut Little Woods.
Deb had asked what went wrong when Ollie got caught smuggling Oxycodone crossing the North Dakota-Canada border. She’d made the trip many times before, but that time, Ollie got careless. The carelessness is her only regret. With almost no second-guessing, the characters in the film make the only choices available to them and move forward from there. There’s no Frostian looking back on the road not taken, no hand-wringing over what should be.
Ollie, a few days away from the end of her probation, is preparing to be evicted from the house in which she lived with their recently deceased mother. She says wryly that it’s a relief her mother died before they could lose the house: “I just have me to worry about now.”
Since she stopped selling drugs, Ollie is trying to scrape together a living selling coffee from the back of her truck and doing laundry. She’s applying for a job in Spokane, eager to put her life as a caretaker behind her. She wants to put miles between herself and the floor where she slept beside her dying mother; between herself and her probation officer (Lance Reddick); between herself and the people who turn up at her door in the middle of the night, looking for something that will dull their pain enough to let them make it through another day working on the oil rig.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Meanwhile, Deb and her son, Johnny, are living in an illegally parked trailer, barely getting by with little help from Johnny’s father, Ian (James Badge Dale). When Deb realizes she is unexpectedly pregnant again, Ollie decides to find a way to save their mother’s house so Deb, Johnny, and the new baby can have a stable place to live. Ollie has fought every attempt by former customers and would-be business partners to pull her back into dealing. But when the bank says she can keep the house if she pays $3,000 within the week, she immediately digs up her buried stash and begins rebuilding her clientele.
In Ollie’s world, you do what you must and you don’t complain about it. When Ian hurls insults at Deb along with the money he’s brought for their son, Deb bursts into tears of rage and tries to throw the cash away. “Stop it,” says Ollie. “You need that.” Pride and resentment can’t take precedent over making sure a child is fed. Deb knows this too, of course, but Ollie gets there much more quickly.
The plot of Little Woods hinges on an unplanned pregnancy and the difficulty of getting an abortion in rural, impoverished North Dakota, but it would be reductive to describe its message as “pro-choice.” Instead, DaCosta highlights the dire lack of alternatives available to her characters. It doesn’t really matter if Deb wants another child. She doesn’t have insurance and can’t spend $8,000 out of pocket on prenatal visits; therefore, she will have an abortion. It doesn’t matter whether Ollie’s friend, Dale, wants an illicit Oxy habit; he can’t miss work to sit in a waiting room until a doctor can look at his wounded leg. And it doesn’t matter whether Ollie wants to stay on the straight and narrow, or even whether it pains her to lie to her probation officer, who seems to genuinely believe in her. She has to protect her family. What these people need isn’t “choices” in the neoliberal, free-market sense. They need rights, protections, a social safety net that has either been dismantled or never existed for the people on the physical and cultural margins in America.
The script offers little direct access to the characters’ internal lives—these are not people with leisure time to talk about their feelings. Instead, DaCosta makes great use of tense silences and carefully chosen words that mask the emotional struggles underneath. The actors, especially Thompson, imbue their characters with unspoken depths, wordlessly expressing the distance between what they want and need and what their circumstances will permit. Without the catharsis of speech, the audience feels how relentlessly pressure builds on these people with no way out. When Ollie finally breaks down, she doesn’t say “it’s not fair” or talk about missing her mother. All she says is, “I’m tired. I’m so tired.”
It’s impossible, in 2019, not to read political intent into any artistic depiction of abortion. But Little Woods doesn’t make any kind of macro argument about reproductive rights, legislation, or even health care. There are no impassioned arguments for the necessity of abortion access, no screaming confrontations with anti-choice activists (of the handful of protesters outside the abortion clinic, Ollie says only a dismissive, “Their signs aren’t even that good”). The subtlety of the storytelling makes the case for abortion access without being didactic, a refreshing change from the polarizing rhetoric of the abortion debate. The question the sisters, and therefore the viewers, are engaged in answering is not whether Deb will terminate her pregnancy, but how.
DaCosta approaches abortion not as a moral problem but a logistical one, focusing on the practical concerns women grapple with every day: How far will I have to drive, how much time can I take off work, who will watch my child while I’m at the doctor? DaCosta’s script and James’ restrained desperation make it hard not to sympathize with Deb.
“Your choices are only as good as your options,” Ollie says to Deb. It’s an effective, if slightly on the nose, thesis statement for the film. If there’s a statement here, it’s simply that a person who is pregnant and can’t have a baby—not doesn’t want to, but can’t—will do whatever is necessary to end the pregnancy. The question of what should be done might be happening elsewhere, but in this place, for these characters, the only thing to do is survive.