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Wednesday
Sep192018

'Little Woods' Outlaw Heroine Tessa Thompson puts Spotlight on Sisterhood at Urbanworld Film Festival

During a recent girl's night I attended, someone sparked a discussion about actors who are so compelling that they are the main reason you will go see a movie in theaters. Tessa Thompson (Sorry to Bother You,Thor: Ragnarok, Westworld, Creed) is among those actresses for me.

Sitting in the film still for Little Woods, her image stopped me dead in my tracks as I scrolled through the 22nd Annual Urbanworld Film Festival schedule this week. I'm glad it did because I would have surely overlooked this western movie about a woman on parole for smuggling medicine to residents in a rural North Dakota town.

When I think of westerns, I picture an old movie from the 70s with cowboys, barndoors and pistols. That is where my mind goes despite knowing good and well there's more to the genre. Adding a modern take on the typical western movie, Little Woods is the directorial debut of Nia DaCosta, a New York native who developed the film for 2 years; starting at the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab.

DaCosta set out to humanize the conversations surrounding healthcare and women's reproductive rights -- topics she says have been overly politicized -- in hopes that her film will serve as a vehicle for understanding among audiences. In Little Woods, two estranged sisters living in poverty work outside of the law to improve their circumstances. Tessa Thompson plays Ollie, a woman who has abandoned her former ways of drug trafficking and helping struggling residents of the oil fracking boomtown in North Dakota sneak across the Canadian border for life or death medical procedures.

English actress Lily James (Baby Driver, Cinderella, Downtown Abbey) plays Deb, Ollie's sister who shows up in crises with a young child and an unexpected pregnancy. Facing foreclosure on the home inheritied from her adopted mother, Ollie must make extreme decisions about whether she will return to her old way of life, risking prison to help keep a roof over her family's head.  

One of the most fascinating things about making movies is how much you learn about the world, or some aspect thereof, as a byproduct of the film. DaCosta deliberately set her film in a fictional town based on Willinston, North Dakota -- where men out number women 2 to 1. Through research, interviews and visits to Willinston, she found out that the town is one of the hardest places to get an abortion, among other needs. The Little Woods director became inspired to tell a story about women in rural America and the hardships they experience regarding access to healthcare.

Upon further reading about this movie, I am reminded about DaCosta's point of there being differences between women's experiences right here in the U.S. and these hardships are rarely part of the public discourse. I would add that its partly because few people outside of rural areas know about the difficulties women endure in rural America, or that the towns even exist.

Before clicking on Tessa Thompson's Little Woods photo, I don't think I've ever heard of Willinston, North Dakota. Reading about Thompson's visit to the town -- where locals told her about the violence, women carrying guns just to be able to shop at Walmart safely, and the bleak state of affairs because the jobs are just not there anymore -- gave me a better appreciation for films like Little Woods; and the bonds created between women on and off-camera to shed light on an aspect of the human experience that audiences typically don't see on the big screen.

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