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Arts & Life

'Little Woods' And The Rising Talent Of Nia DaCosta


"Little Woods" is a new movie about a woman named Ollie, played by Tessa Thompson, who got busted smuggling drugs across the Canadian border and is now on parole, about to get off.


TESSA THOMPSON: (As Ollie) I've been applying for something normal, you know, so I can stop all the odd jobs and whatnot - all legal, of course.

LANCE REDDICK: (As character) And the illegal stuff - getting better at saying no?

THOMPSON: (As Ollie) Yes.

SIMON: "Little Woods" was directed and written by Nia DaCosta. It's her first film, and it captures the challenges facing women in rural America. NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: One of the many little tragedies that drives the plot in "Little Woods" is that having a baby is expensive...


LILY JAMES: (As Deb) Being pregnant costs $8,000?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm afraid so, honey.

LIMBONG: ...As Ollie's sister, Deb, played by Lily James, finds out.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Have you considered going home and having the baby with family?

JAMES: (As Deb) I'm from here. I don't really have - what about other options?

LIMBONG: The movie is set in the fictional town of Little Woods, modeled after the very real oil boomtown Williston, N.D.

SARA SOLBERG: For everything, you're probably talking anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 - maybe even more, depending on what's all going on.

LIMBONG: That's Dr. Sara Solberg, a practicing OB-GYN in Williston, N.D. She says the big issue of rural health care is distance. It's not rare for her to see patients coming in from 60 to 100 miles away. You also can't get an elective abortion in Williston, says Dr. Solberg. So patients looking for one...

SOLBERG: Typically, they look at going to Billings, Mont., which is about a little over 300 miles, or Fargo, N.D., to the east.

LIMBONG: Nearly 400 miles away.

Writer-director Nia DaCosta started writing "Little Woods" in 2014. Debate was raging over the Affordable Care Act - women's health care in particular.

NIA DACOSTA: And I was really struck by how there was no connection to actual people's lived experiences. And so I wanted to tell a story about that but filtered through the lens of women who lived in a rural part of America, and in particular, those who are struggling with poverty.

LIMBONG: Living in a rural area wasn't part of DaCosta's lived experience, but she wanted to make a movie about women she hadn't seen much of on-screen, which can be tricky - writing about a world that isn't wholly yours. Hit a few wrong notes and you risk coming off as insincere at best.

DACOSTA: Something that you learn in film school is write what you know. I used to take that really literally. Like, I'd be like, OK, I'm a black woman from New York. I like brunch. Like, this is my write-what-you-know sort of - you know?

But then I realized the better way of looking at that is write what you know emotionally. And emotionally, you connect with people who are completely unlike you and live in different places. And if you connect on that level with the story you're telling, with the people whose stories you're trying to tell, then you have a better shot at not condescending or lying, basically.

LIMBONG: So she whittled her movie down to two sisters, one of whom goes back to her criminal ways to help out the other.

MICHELLE SATTER: She always talked about it as a Western.

LIMBONG: That's Michelle Satter, a director at the Sundance Institute, which helped develop and train DaCosta as a writer and a director.

SATTER: You know, the idea of the so-called lone gunslinger who puts down the guns and then is called to action by the one person that they cannot refuse.

LIMBONG: There's gold in the hills of "Little Woods." It's not a navel-gazey rumination on the personal costs of societal forces. DaCosta's more interested in the dramatic techniques from films she grew up watching.

DACOSTA: And I have to bring up Scorsese because I'm pretty sure when I found out he went to Tisch, I was, like, got to go there, like, as a 15-year-old. I think, like, '70s filmmaking in general was really huge for me because I was like, these men are insane. They're making these crazy movies, and anything is possible.

LIMBONG: It's telling what's up next for DaCosta. She's directing the new "Candyman" movie, written by Jordan Peele, as well as writing and directing a new version of "Sleeping With The Enemy." Saying something new with these forgotten '90s properties might seem like a wild idea unless you truly believe that anything is possible. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.