For those steeped in middle-class privilege, it is probably impossible to imagine a place mired in as much misery and dysfunction as the titular town at the centre of this independent drama from writer/director Nia DaCosta. Of course there are starving millions across the globe whose daily struggle for survival goes far beyond anything we see here, but as far as those living in a wealthy western democracy, the residents of Little Woods are a desperate, downtrodden bunch entrenched in a cycle of poverty and wretchedness. Set in North Dakota within spitting distance of the Canadian border, Little Woods is a story that, regardless of whether it is based on any specific events from real life, is very believable in its portrayal of the lives of people trapped in the cycle of poverty. It is bleak and ultimately offers no solutions or suggestions of better things to come for the various characters, but nothing in the screenplay feels invented or contrived, capturing the social, emotional and visual aesthetic of a world where, for many, each day is a battle to make ends meet.

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Front and centre of the narrative is Ollie (Tessa Thompson), a young woman who, in the wake of her mother’s death, is struggling to keep herself afloat. On probation after being caught bringing prescription medications over the border illegally, she is eking out an existence by selling food and coffee to those living in work camps that service the numerous oil derricks that dot the landscape. Her sister Deb (Lily James) works as a waitress and lives in an abandoned motorhome with her young son Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid), but is infuriatingly inept in her capacity to function as an adult. Having moved into her current abode when the previous occupant vamoosed, Deb ignores numerous threats by the owners of the supermarket car park in which it is parked illegally, but is both surprised and indignant when it is towed away. Whilst there is no doubt that both women are very much a product of their environment, at least Ollie has aspirations for a better life, whereas Deb seems unable and unwilling to acknowledge her failings as a sister and mother and seems destined to remain entrenched in a cycle of poverty. When the family home Ollie shared with her mother comes under threat of foreclosure, the end of her probation and a job offer out of town can’t come soon enough to keep the banks at bay, forcing her to contemplate a return to her border-hopping ways.

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The film is a searing indictment of the health system in the United States as the demand for the pharmaceuticals the Ollie offers is driven by a lack of access to medical services. In one scene, one of Ollie’s former customers arrives on her doorstep looking for pain medication to enable him to keep working with a badly damaged ankle. Without health insurance, workers can’t afford to take time off work and lengthy hospital waiting times also make securing access to a doctor for treatment and a prescription a luxury that most can ill afford, forcing workers to seek alternative suppliers which, without the oversight of medical professionals, results in dependency and addiction.  Furthermore, when Deb learns she is pregnant, she too finds herself at the mercy of a system that is unjust and ineffective for those living on the margins.

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Johnny’s father Ian (James Badge Dale) is an exemplar deadbeat dad, preferring to spend his time and money at the local bar rather than lending any emotional or financial support to his son. The fact that Deb continues to gravitate towards him despite his propensity for violence is infuriating, but sadly not a unique scenario. In fact the only male character who demonstrates any sense of decency is Ollie’s probation officer Carter (Lance Reddick), who is desperate to see her break free from the confines of her small town stasis.  There is a bleakness to it all that many viewers may find unpalatable, but there is an underlying truth to this world that makes for compelling viewing. The visuals from cinematographer Matt Mitchell are evocatively elegiac and the performances from both Thompson and James are great. With Little Woods, DaCosta has shown that African-American filmmakers need not confined to telling ‘black’ stories, presenting a version of contemporary America that is, whilst unpalatable and unrecognisable for some, a harsh reality for a great many.