In writer-director Nia DaCosta’s new film “Little Woods” (screening for free at Space on Wednesday, June 19), two sisters try to navigate their way out of a mess caused by economics, addiction, politics, the penal system and geography. That’s a tall order, especially when you live in a rural state (North Dakota, in this case) where the already hardscrabble life of women on the margins is further complicated by politicians’ efforts to make vital, deeply personal health care decisions, including abortion, as wrenching and difficult as possible.
The 2018 film is about a paroled former dealer of illegal prescription opioids (“Avengers: Endgames”‘ Tessa Thompson, continuing her much-deserved cinematic rise) attempting to resist the lure of her old life. Easier said than done when foreclosure and devastating illness loom, and harder still when her pregnant younger sister (“Baby Driver”’s Lily James) arrives after fleeing an abusive ex. Attempting to navigate their state’s calculated maze of money, bureaucracy and distance as the younger sister seeks to end her unwanted pregnancy, the two are forced to take ever more risky and desperate actions.
Watch the trailer:
Compared admiringly in its lived-in, poverty-stricken, slice-of-life style to films like Debra Granik’s excellent 2010 backwoods drama “Winter’s Bone,” “Little Woods” is, like that film, a woman-led family crime story where overarching threats vie with everyday ones to make life a seemingly inescapable trap. The Space screening is co-sponsored by Maine Planned Parenthood, partly in response to the rising tide of anti-choice legislation.
“We felt that it was particularly important in the current political climate regarding reproductive health,” says Planned Parenthood Maine Action Fund spokeswoman Amy Cookson, who helped organize the screening. “In addition to being an enjoyable movie experience, the film gives us the opportunity to open up discussion, to make space for people to talk about the very real issues involved.”
To that end, Wednesday’s free screening at 7 p.m. will be followed by a panel discussion with experts in abortion and reproductive health. For Space, such multifaceted community events are commonplace public service. For Cookson, “Little Woods” represents a chance to educate as well as entertain, something needed now more than ever before.
“The filmmakers came to Planned Parenthood before filming,” Cookson says of director DaCosta (who is directing the upcoming “Candyman” remake alongside producer Jordan Peele). “They talked to patients and staff about their experiences, and were determined to be accurate in their portrayal, particularly in regard to rural states.”
She adds, “Authentic portrayals are really important right now.”
There are few issues more fraught than abortion. Even if polls show an ever-widening majority of Americans believe that a woman’s right to choose is just that — her right — Cookson points to the accelerating efforts of state legislatures to eliminate reproductive rights and the hyperbolic rhetoric of anti-abortion politicians as reasons for Planned Parenthood’s sponsorship of screenings like this one.
“Movies and pop culture, they have the power to challenge the stigma around abortion, and to change the conversation,” she says.
She lauds DaCosta and Thompson, who recorded a video about abortion in conjunction with “Little Woods,” for their accuracy in portraying the many hoops rural and lower-income women increasingly face. Cookson notes that Maine is a rural state whose limits on abortion access are being eased by the Governor Janet Mills’ administration, and points to the passage of a bill eliminating restrictions on medical personnel who perform the procedure as one step toward redressing Maine’s issues with unfair treatment.
“It’s really important,” Cookson said, claiming the overheated, often bad-faith attacks of abortion foes serve to obscure facts that women need to make informed reproductive decisions.
Citing the recent Hulu series “Shrill” as another positive example of pop culture demystifying women’s health, Cookson explains that the show’s pilot (starring the always-delightful Aidy Bryant) laid out a specific, essential medical fact that most people don’t know. Relating how Bryant’s character undergoes an abortion because of the unpredictability of emergency contraception in larger-sized women, Cookson says that watching a character’s genuine and specifically personal dilemmas onscreen can go a long way toward making the debate about women’s reproductive health more informed and responsible.
As Thompson’s character says in “Little Woods”’s trailer, “Your choices are only as good as your options are.”
“Little Woods” screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, at Space, 538 Congress St., Portland. Tickets are free, but people are encouraged to reserve at eventbrite.com