Published on January 31st, 2015 | by Clint Davis
The Wood 
Summary: This movie about three buddies has a hell of a lot of heart. The actors do a fine job and the direction stays lighthearted but ultimately the characters lack depth and the events that unfold are boilerplate. 'The Wood' is a fun movie with a universal plot--for male audiences at least.
R | 106 min.
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Screenplay: Rick Famuyiwa, Todd Boyd
Starring: Omar Epps, Taye Diggs, Richard T. Jones
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
U.S. Box Office: $25,059,640 (#76 of 1999)
The Wood doesn’t boast a cast of A-list stars, a script full of laughs or even a plot that’s the least bit fresh. But what it gives up in content, it more than makes up for with heart.
This 1999 buddy comedy runs on nostalgia and the believability of the close friendship between its three main characters. The film’s lead performances — and the charming way the entire cast is written — are what keep The Wood from being a forgettable summer comedy.
This was just the sixth movie produced by MTV Films, an arm of the iconic cable network. You might think seeing the MTV logo crop up before the opening titles means you’re in for a dumbed-down teen flick but when you look at the pictures they produced — present company included — you’ll find a few memorable titles.
Writer-director Alexander Payne’s Election, which hit theaters just two months after The Wood, is one of my favorite comedies of the ‘90s. In 2004, Napoleon Dynamite wasn’t exactly Shakespeare but it remains one of the most original teen pictures I’ve ever seen and collected $46.1 million at the box office atop a $400,000 budget. It may be time for an MTV Films renaissance however, as 2005’s Hustle and Flow was the last truly good movie they’ve financed.
The Wood proved to be a minor hit with audiences. On a budget of about $6 million, it made over $25 million at the box office. The film’s trailers depicted a story about three best friends taking a stroll down memory lane and that’s almost exactly what the movie ends up being.
Our plot follows childhood friends Mike (Omar Epps), Roland (Taye Diggs) and Slim (Richard T. Jones) on the day of Roland’s wedding. The groom-to-be has cold feet and when his two confidantes find him at his ex’s house in a drunken stupor, they try to get him sober and cleaned up before the ceremony, all while recalling fond memories from their teenage years.
In the film’s many flashback sequences, the boys are played by actors Sean Nelson, Duane Finley and Trent Cameron, respectively. Each of those actors was about 20 years old when they shot the movie and I found all of them easy to buy as high school teens.
The characters in The Wood are not fully fleshed out. We get generic notions of each one’s role — Mike is the cool-headed “mediator,” Slim the hot-headed agitator and Roland, well, we’re not really sure what his attribute is but he’s played with charm by Diggs. My biggest complaint with this film, aside from the fact that its plot is trite, is that their lives were apparently on pause for the time between high school and the present day. We’re told that approximately 13 years have passed between the last flashback and Roland’s wedding day but co-writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s script leads us to believe nothing of consequence happened within that gap.
Another thing that bugged me about The Wood was that in the opening 15 minutes, Mike and Slim regularly break the fourth wall, speaking directly to camera and the audience. Slim acknowledges the audience as “people we don’t know.” This device is abandoned quickly and never used again. It’s like they forgot about it or just thought it didn’t work after shooting the first few scenes but didn’t want to go back and re-do them.
Other than those gripes, I really enjoyed this movie and if you’re a fan of films about friendly relationship and high school nostalgia, you’ll dig The Wood also. The movie’s opening titles are elegantly done and serve as a perfect segue into the picture. We hear Ahmad’s classic song “Back in the Day” and see a closeup of spinning vinyl and we know what this ride will be about.
It’s evident that the chief concern of Famuyiwa and Todd Boyd’s screenplay is conveying a sense of relatability between the audience and these characters. The Wood does not try to be a “black movie” like Barbershop or even a “hood movie” like Menace II Society, but rather this picture can play to pretty much any crowd, provided you went to public school. The film’s interesting title comes from the characters’ nickname for their hometown of Inglewood, California.
“There’s some shit you gotta learn if you’re gonna hang around in The Wood,” 15-year-old Slim tells Mike, who just moved there from North Carolina, when the pair first meet in 1986. This sounds like the kind of foreboding message you might hear in Boyz n the Hood but the boys never get into any real danger during the film. Even when gang violence does pop up in the plot, it’s played for laughs. The big, bad gangster in The Wood is named Stacey for God’s sake! And he actually turns out to be one of the most likable and polite guys in the story.
I give Famuyiwa and Boyd credit for making a picture about young African-American men in southern California that didn’t involve a message about the tragedy of gang violence. In 1990s black cinema, that notion had become a played-out storyline of its own.
Speaking of played-out storylines, The Wood is loaded with every coming-of-age genre staple. In just over 100 minutes, the teen versions of our main characters go through such familiar growing pains as:
- The first day at a new school
- Getting beat up by a bully
- Crushing on an untouchable girl in your grade
- Going to the year-end dance
- Making a virginity bet and subsequently losing your virginity
Yes, nearly every action depicted in this movie has been done to death in the teen genre but it’s not often that we genuinely like all the characters in those movies. Mike, Roland and Slim are a lot of fun to watch, especially as adults because the three actors genuinely seem like friends. The first 30 to 40 minutes of The Wood mostly consist of scenes with the younger actors but the film’s final hour gives the audience some extended bits of dialogue between the older actors. Not much happens in these scenes — save for some projectile vomiting and male nudity that each come out of nowhere — but it’s simply fun to watch these guys shoot the shit.
Famuyiwa’s direction keeps things lighthearted, especially in the flashback sequences. One scene that’s particularly well done is when Mike tries grab his crush Alicia’s ass at recess on a dare. A Mexican bullfighter-style fanfare plays as his focus intensifies — all in dramatic slow-motion — and we tighten on the girl’s butt swaying back and forth as she swings a jump rope. The costume department even put her in bright red jeans, furthering the bullfighting motif.
What endears us to the lead trio is that they are all harmless, nice guys. Like many coming-of-age flicks we revel in watching the lead characters embarrass themselves but I found myself truly rooting for Mike when he’s trying to lose his virginity. That particular scene is interesting because it depicts the female as the pursuer. Young Mike actually tries to talk himself out of it, moving away from her every obvious advance. Alicia (Malinda Williams) finally says to him, “Are you trying to do this, or what?”
The Wood simply has a sweeter tone than most other high school pictures I’ve seen. Mike is depicted as having a nice relationship with his mom, evident in what might be my favorite scene of the film as the boy dances in front of the living room mirror. We even get a happy, heartwarming ending about friendship and the ties that bind all of us. It’s a fittingly light cap on a small, charming film that plays as an ode to youth and the hometown that most of us smile when we remember.