Little Woods is the debut feature of writer-director Nia DaCosta, who has most recently directed the upcoming Candyman (written by Jordan Peele). It’s been on my to-watch-list ever since it premiered at Tribeca, first for its “neo-western” description, and secondly for the fact that female written and directed westerns are still too rare in the genre. Little Woods (known in the UK as Crossing the Line, probably because they were worried people would go “what, like the catalogue?”) tells a story of sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James) and their attempts to survive in an unforgiving area of North Dakota, hard up against the border with Canada.
Pausing for a second on the term “neo-western”. I’m not prescriptive when it comes to classification; there are arguments for tracing threads of the western through many genres without needing sharp definitions. But, for clarity’s sake, neo-westerns are generally accepted to be a genre in their own right, similar to revisionist westerns in that they incorporate and play upon western conventions, while simultaneously interrogating them and reflecting more contemporary viewpoints. Neo-westerns often transplant the action away from the dusty, arid landscapes of the traditional frontier, to more urban environments. Think Near Dark (1987) or maybe No Country for Old Men (2007).
But Little Woods isn’t just a neo-western because it slots into those definitions. Throughout the film DaCosta deftly handles western motifs to highlight the film’s overarching themes: violence, hope, self-preservation, morality and the reality of an American Dream run dry.
The film opens on a dark, wooded landscape and the sound of digging; immediately conjuring the illicit, secret and dangerous. These woods, we learn, are in North Dakota, and the digger is Ollie, the film’s protagonist, unearthing a bag of prescription drugs, mostly the devastating opioid OxyContin, which she has illegally smuggled across the Canadian border.
The concept of the frontier exists in the western as both setting and theme: it’s the dream of “unclaimed” land where the societal rules and laws do not apply, where a new life can be forged and riches can be won with hard graft. Like many revisionist westerns, Little Woods shreds the romanticism of the frontier and presents instead the harsh reality: an oil boomtown that’s not so far from the tent cities of the goldrush Old West, plagued by chronic housing shortages, physically perilous jobs, lack of heathcare and unaffordable goods. Here however, the major antagonist isn’t a greedy, rapacious land baron or cold-hearted capitalist, but a broken, out of control healthcare system driven only by profit.
If that sounds a bit on the nose, don’t worry: one of DaCosta’s skills as a filmmaker is her ability to approach a subject with nuance. There are victims here, yes, but that doesn’t mean they are helpless innocents. Ollie, we soon learn, may have got into drugs-running to obtain medication for her dying mother, but she eventually got caught on the border:
“Because I forgot to be scared. Because I liked it too much”.
When the film opens, Ollie is eight days away from finishing her probation, supported by well-meaning probation officer Carter (Lance Reddick, best known as Daniels in The Wire). Here’s another western staple, the “one-last-job” trope; when Ollie finds herself in a desperate situation, her house foreclosed on, her estranged sister Deb, who lives illegally in a trailer, pregnant, the easy money of her former criminal career becomes ever more tempting.
Ollie’s desperation to escape her situation is really the film’s driving force, and we can’t help but root for her, even as danger threatens to slam her only escape route – a potential job and new life out west in Spokane – shut in her face.
Here DaCosta touches upon another classic western theme: the precariousness of existence in a hostile environment. Ollie’s choices, and they are difficult ones, constantly place her in danger; whether alone at night in a trucker’s rest, or stopped on the road by a state trooper whose hostile behaviour towards Ollie, who is black, shifts markedly when Deb, who is white, appears. Deb’s pregnancy, meanwhile, puts her in an impossible position: as a single mother trying to put herself through college and scraping by on earnings as a waitress, she can’t afford the hundreds of dollars it would take for an abortion at a clinic, let alone the $12,000 bill to have a baby without insurance. As a result, she is forced to endanger herself, either with a back-alley abortion or by crossing the border illegally with a stolen ID.
Many of Ollie’s customers are likewise scarred, emotionally and physically, and addicted to OxyContin as a result. It seems that – in this frontier as in many others – violence is inescapable. At one point Ollie visits a rodeo, where, in a deft visual metaphor, the vicious bucking of the horses mirrors the constant driving of the nodding donkey pumps on the oil fields: both inflicting untold long-term damage.
It’s reminiscent of a harder, colder type of frontier, the sort found in films like Day of the Outlaw (1959), with its message, “you won’t find much mercy anywhere in Wyoming”.
There’s little mercy in DaCosta’s North Dakota either, but there is compassion and – most of all – perseverance. It’s another example of the film’s overarching theme, itself an enduring classic of the western genre: the fact that the right decision is not always the lawful one.
Little Woods (Crossing the Line) is currently available to rent on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play and via Amazon Prime.
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