"Little Woods" Explores Family Bonds, Poverty, and Opioids in Small-Town America

By Dorri Olds 04/24/19

"I hadn’t set out to make a political film but my personal point of view about what’s happening right now is horrifying. I mean whatever way we’re dealing with the opiate crisis, it isn’t working."

Little Woods Film Poster, a film about family, poverty, opioids
Ollie risks her freedom, her new job, and her safety to make one last drug run. The heart-pumping action begins.

Writer-director Nia DaCosta’s first feature Little Woods is fresh off the film festival circuit and now playing in theaters nationwide. The movie earned multiple awards including Tribeca’s prestigious 2018 Nora Ephron Prize. It’s the kind of thriller that makes you lean forward—a nail-biter. Tessa Thompson and Lily James keep the audience transfixed.

This is a tale of two sisters living in Little Woods, North Dakota, a fracking town in rapid decline. Ollie (Thompson) is the stronger, tougher sib. She’s the one who gets things done. Unfortunately she got too careless as a drug runner and was caught transporting opioids across the border from Canada. When Parole Officer Carter (Lance Reddick) reminds Ollie that they have only one more meeting before she’s free to start a legit job in Spokane, his concerned look foreshadows looming problems. He says, “Please stay out of trouble,” but the audience understands: Uh oh. Something bad is gonna happen.

Deb (James) had been the most popular girl in high school so it’s not a surprise that she paired up with the most popular guy, Ian (James Badge Dale). But now Ian is an alcoholic and deadbeat dad to their son Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid). Frail Deb is a broken and broke substance abuser with a knack for screwing up her life.

The estranged sisters are together again in the house they grew up in, each feeling exhausted and alone despite their close physical proximity. They are separately grieving the recent loss of their mother after a prolonged illness, in which Ollie stayed to provide care while Deb did her own thing. Their family history is fraught with resentments.

Easing their mother’s pain was the impetus for Ollie’s initial border-crossing opioid-gathering mission. Canadian prescription painkillers were cheaper. That was how the trafficking started; we get the bigger picture when Deb asks Ollie why she got caught.

“I forgot to be scared,” Ollie said. “I liked it too much.”

There is no money left after their mom’s death. Mortgage payments are overdue and Ollie finds a foreclosure notice on the front door. She is ready to just walk away, to blow this depressing town and let the bank take the house. With a new job to look forward to, she feels hopeful for the first time in longer than she can remember.

Then everything comes to a screeching halt.

Deb reveals that she is accidentally pregnant by Johnny’s no-good father.

Deb tried to handle things herself: She went to see a doctor but was told that without insurance, the cost of prenatal care combined with the fees for the birth would run between $8,000 and $9,000. Disillusioned, she opts for an abortion only to discover that North Dakota abortion centers were shuttered. Finally, desperate, Deb researches where she can get a legal abortion in Canada.

When Deb breaks down and tells Ollie the news, including that she’ll have to travel hundreds of miles in order to get an affordable abortion, the stronger sister kicks into high gear like the super-duper codependent she is. With only one week to pay the bank at least half of the $6,000 they owe on the mortgage, Ollie decides she can’t leave destitute Deb and Johnny homeless.

That’s when I wanted to scream, “No! Go to Al-Anon!”

But Ollie risks her freedom, her new job, and her safety to make one last drug run. The heart-pumping action begins. Luke Kirby plays the frightening drug dealer.

Nia DaCosta talked to journalist Dorri Olds for The Fix.

“They told me in film school, ‘Write what you know,’” said DaCosta. “At first, I took that literally. But I didn’t want to write about my life, I wanted to explore other worlds.”

DaCosta figured out that she could use the same principle to write about topics she didn’t know but could learn if she was able to relate emotionally.

“We look at poverty and addiction as personal failures, moral failures,” said the Brooklyn-born, Harlem-raised 29-year-old. “I had a great family. I mean we weren’t well off but growing up in New York City, I could walk to a hospital. I can get to a Planned Parenthood. Lives of deprivation, like Deb and Ollie’s, [were] completely unfamiliar to me.”

Determined and hardworking, DaCosta spent time in Williston, North Dakota to write the fictional town of Little Woods. She was stunned by how little she knew about how dark life is for so many people in America, especially women.

“I wanted to present what was happening. This is reality. This is where we are. Medications are overprescribed to a startling degree. I remember getting 20 Vicodin pills when I got my wisdom teeth taken out. I didn’t need any of the pills.”

Alarmed, she threw them out.

“I hadn’t set out to make a political film but my personal point of view about what’s happening right now is horrifying. I mean whatever way we’re dealing with the opiate crisis, it isn’t working. That is heartbreaking.”

DaCosta confirmed that trafficking opioids was never about getting high for Ollie. But after smuggling affordable painkillers to help her mom, Ollie found out how much locals would pay for the ill-gotten opioids. The town of Little Woods attracted men who came for the oil drilling jobs, hard manual labor that resulted in body aches and chronic pain. The more Ollie became known as the go-to for “meds,” the more it went to her head. She liked being a badass drug dealer. In a town where there were few options, especially for women, she liked her tough persona and getting to hang with the boys.

“It gave her a purpose,” said DaCosta. “It gave her a place where she mattered; a way to stand out.”

The filmmaker decided to add substance misuse to Deb’s problems after she spent time in North Dakota researching for the movie.

“I remember talking to people, and it was just a part of the ecosystem. Everyone I spoke to either knew someone, or they themselves had substance abuse issues and had been involved with it in some way.”

Even though she didn’t set out to make a political film, DaCosta’s movie explores interrelated social, economic, and health problems that the U.S. is grappling with. In the red states, clinics that perform abortions and other health services for women are being shut down. Many fear that Roe vs. Wade may be overturned. The opioid epidemic has reached astonishing numbers. Click here for more information.

Nia DaCosta and Tessa Thompson discuss Planned Parenthood:

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.