Westerns are difficult films to make. The genre is riddled with politically incorrect and misogynistic tropes from the White Savior Complex to damsels in distress to toxic masculinity. So, when Nia DaCosta made a Western, she took all of those tropes, showed them for what they were, and held the genre to a higher standard.
In her directorial debut, Little Woods, DaCosta turns the Western into a family drama about poverty and survival. The film follows sisters Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James). Ollie, a former drug dealer, is turning her life around, ready to leave the small North Dakota town that has entrapped her. Deb, a young mother, finds herself pregnant yet again, reaching out to her semi-estranged sister for help.
Ollie and Deb represent the many women ensnared in the cycle of poverty. Deb is about to be trapped by another pregnancy while Ollie, wanting to help her sister, goes back to drug dealing for fast cash. DaCosta highlights real issues for women: re-entry into society following prison sentences, employment problems, unwanted pregnancy, and the choice and the monetary burden of terminating a pregnancy.
Both main characters are not just damsels in distress but also the hero on the white horse for themselves and each other. Ollie risks everything to ease the financial burden of pregnancy termination for Deb. Deb, in turn, supports Ollie in her quest of redemption. Deb does everything she can to terminate her pregnancy, knowing full well she cannot emotionally, physically, or financially support another child. Ollie fights to leave North Dakota and the drugs, poverty, and pain from the caregiving and loss of their mother.
What DaCosta showcases is the empowerment of women both by each other and by themselves. She takes a contrived genre and emphasizes the beauty of the Western mentality: pick yourself up and keep going. It helps that James and Thompson embody DaCosta’s vision and both delve into a “ride or die” mentality.
Westerns always have a romantic storyline, and DaCosta provides the audience with that. But rather than it being between a tough guy and a delicate woman, it is between two sisters. And there’s no stronger bond than sisterhood.