There were dozens of incredible films, events, awards and celebrity sightings at the Tribeca Film Festival this week, but here’s one to really watch: On Thursday, writer and director Nia DaCosta took home the Nora Ephron Award at the festival’s juried awards ceremony for her first feature film, Little Woods.
Starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James as estranged sisters Ollie and Deb, Little Woods is a story that explores sisterhood, poverty, reproductive rights, family obligation and acts of desperation, set against the backdrop of rural North Dakota amid the ongoing opioid epidemic. It’s a story about a part of America that is rarely depicted, and women who are rarely seen—particularly women of color. DaCosta explained her inspiration at the film’s screening:
I wanted to tell a story about women living in a rural part of America, and I knew I wanted to tell a human story about things that were in the news that were really politicized, like health care and women’s reproductive rights, and access to health care for women in particular.
DaCosta personally recruited rising stars Thompson and James to star in her feature debut; she told newspaper Metro that Thompson was asked point-blank over drinks at the Sundance Director’s Lab, where DaCosta was workshopping scenes for the film.
Speaking further, DaCosta also talked about how the election of Donald Trump brought surprising and bittersweet relevance to the themes of Little Woods, and why she chose to write what many are calling a “neo-Western”:
When I wrote the script, Barack Obama was president and the Affordable Care Act was being rolled out and so many more people were insured. I was like, ‘Oh wow! Maybe this movie won’t be relevant.’ The expectation was that Hillary [Clinton] was going to be president, and this wouldn’t be relevant. Then Trump got elected. And it was a dark day. But my one friend said, ‘This is the worst day of my life. But at least your film is relevant now.’ Because we don’t know what is going to happen with health care and abortion clinics. There are only one each in North and South Dakota, and laws mean that they are blipping in and out of existence. ...
Our best American genres are the Western and the Southern Gothic. Because it is all about exploring Americanism and what does that mean. Westerns are about the American ideal, always being on the trail, and people making bad choices because they have bad options. Southern Gothic is about American decay. I have always been exploring what being American means, what was this dream that was promised us, and I hope this movie is in this vein.
The Nora Ephron Award was created in 2012 to “honor excellence in storytelling by a female writer or director embodying the spirit and boldness of the late filmmaker.” In addition to the honor, DaCosta was awarded $25,000, furnished by Chanel. The Tribeca jury issued this comment:
For its sure-footed storytelling featuring an unconventional heroine who pushes past expectations of what is bravery in a woman’s life or in cinema. In watching this portrait of a woman at a crossroads in small-town America, we found ourselves wanting to see more stories from this filmmaker and more of her vision of a woman in the world. We chose writer-director Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods.
With this win, Little Woods is sure to become another little indie that could, perhaps even following in the storied footsteps of 2016’s groundbreaking Moonlight. But for sure, writer-director DaCosta is on the rise, and one we’ll be keeping our eyes on.