The Quarantine Stream: 'Little Woods' Is An Astonishing Debut Feature From Nia DaCosta That Shouldn't Be Overlooked

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they've been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)The Movie: Little WoodsWhere You Can Stream It: HuluThe Pitch: In a female-led neo-Western, Tessa Thompson plays Ollie, a reformed ex-con with dreams of escaping her dreary fracking hometown of Little Woods, North Dakota. But when her terminally ill mother dies and her sister (Lily James) arrives on her doorstep with an unplanned pregnancy she can't afford, Ollie is forced to return to dealing opioids to scrounge up enough money to pay for her mother's mortgage and for her sister's abortion. Think of it as Hell or High Water with sisters.Why It's Essential Quarantine Viewing: I remember being surprised to learn that Little Woods was DaCosta's directorial debut when I saw the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival back in 2018. The film is directed so confidently and assuredly — a bleak, powerful portrait of middle America that never veers on cloying, and handles difficult current-day issues like opioid abuse and abortion with grace. But I was less surprised when DaCosta was soon tapped to direct the Jordan Peele-produced Candyman, a buzzy project based on the cult horror film. This was a rising director to watch, and all eyes are going to be on DaCosta as the first-ever Black female director of a Marvel movie. So it's never a better time to revisit (or visit for the first time) her powerful feature debut.Little Woods is the latest incarnation of the Western, a potent slow-burning thriller that taps into the economic devastation that has wracked middle America for the past few decades. Anchored by two incredible performances by Thompson and James, Little Woods becomes an intimate and painfully current film that evolves a genre primarily populated by hyper-masculine men.

DaCosta wisely centers the film around the fraught but loving story of Ollie and Deb. The adopted daughter — and de facto favorite — of the family, Ollie shouldered the burdens of caring for their sick mom and cleaning up after Deb's mistakes, including Deb's relationship with her deadbeat ex-boyfriend, Ian (James Badge Dale). But even as their long-simmering resentments come to the surface — ending in one of several explosive fights that offer stunning showcases for Thompson and James — Little Woods makes it clear that there's nothing but love between them.

Little Woods is a grim neo-Western that operates like the female response to Hell or High Water. Like David Mackenzie's 2016 thriller, there's a silent desperation that saturates the film, DaCosta's camera lingering on the dilapidated buildings and bars, and wide, barren spaces that populate the small town. The town of Little Woods is one of the many forgotten corners of middle America that are the subject of countless think pieces and NPR podcasts these days. But DaCosta paints the town with such an authentic, lived-in touch that the intrusion of real-world crises like the opioid crisis doesn't feel as steeped in politics as it could easily have been. It's a powerful and haunting indie drama that signaled the debut of a promising new director — a promise that DaCosta is clearly set on fulfilling.