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'Little Woods' Sparks Conversation About Women's Rights, Poverty

April 10, 2019

“Who do you consider American? What do they look like and where do they live?”

Little Woods writer-director Nia DaCosta asked herself those questions years ago, after watching Frozen River (2008) and the 2010’s Winters Bone. Both movies explore how socioeconomic issues like poverty and class impact women.

“When I watched those movies I was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about that. I didn’t know about women like that and they live in my country.’”

So DaCosta, who grew up in New York City, began investigating.

“I read a lot of articles from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal,” she said.

“They were great journalistic pieces. I watched a lot of documentaries.”

From there, in 2014, DaCosta began writing Little Woods, which has been hailed as a “modern Western.”

The film follows two sisters navigating their treacherous, unruly realities in a fracking boomtown in backwoods North Dakota. Ollie and Deb, played by Tessa Thompson and Lily James respectively, endure the cultural, racial, economic and sexual stereotypes that women in America have faced for generations.

Little Woods also addresses healthcare in America, including pregnancy and abortion.

Through Deb’s eyes, we see the struggle of a pregnant, working-class woman, including the high cost of pregnancy and the lengthy distance of abortion clinics in the rural Midwest.

DaCosta spent years conducting research to ensure the accuracy of these formidable issues, even traveling to North Dakota.

“I talked to the people who live there, who had moved there or been from there before,” she said.

 “I wanted to explore women in the rural part of America and what their lives are like and by an extension of that, the gendered experience of poverty in a way, and how that makes you do things maybe you wouldn’t do normally … your choices are only as good as your options.”

DaCosta also consulted with Caren Spruch, the director of arts and entertainment engagement at Planned Parenthood.

“I started several years ago working with the producers on a very early version of the script and then arranging them to visit different Planned Parenthoods and talk to staff there, talk to the people in North Dakota, where this film takes place, about what it’s like when abortion providers are hours apart,” Spruch said.

Spruch also reviewed scripts, provided set materials, connected producers to experts and provided the latest data trends.

“One out of four women will have had an abortion. Abortion is healthcare, so it’s something people are familiar with, but we still don’t talk about it,” she said.

“So having television and film talk about these issues in an accurate way is a very important thing to happen to make a change and ultimately change policy around these issues.”

Although Roe V. Wade made abortion legal in the United States, each state has the ability to regulate the practice. For women living in rural areas like the main characters of Little Woods, obtaining an abortion can be crucial for health but nearly impossible. With films like this one, the creators hope to use pop culture to educate and create change.

“In many parts of the country it is very hard for people to access abortions,” Spruch said.

“Especially people with low income; people in rural areas, young people, people of color, the LGBT community. They have to find the money, many have to travel very far, so this film is very important because that’s an issue that hasn’t been depicted very often onscreen, so this educates people.”

It was an education for those who worked on the film too, including Lance Reddick, who plays Carter, Ollie’s parole officer. 

“When I read the script I was just really floored by how great it was and how tight it was in terms of healthcare,” Reddick said.

“Being a suburban kid from the city … it’s a story that I don’t think about … I hope people, I hope everyone sees what it’s like to be working poor.”

Little Woods will be released in theaters on April 19. It is the recipient of Tribeca’s Nora Ephron Award.

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