When several years ago a friend told aspiring filmmaker Rick Famuyiwa that he was getting married, the two of them started reminiscing about growing up in the African American middle-class neighborhood of Inglewood (now becoming increasingly Latino).
Famuyiwa, a 1996 USC film school graduate, came away hours later with the idea for his fresh and funny first feature,"The Wood," which he adapted from a story he wrote with one of his former USC professors, Todd Boyd. "The Wood" is an across-the-board delight featuring a spot-on ensemble cast that treats the most awkward and embarrassing moments in the rites of passage with affectionate hilarity.
"The Wood" begins in the present, roughly 2 1/2 hours before Taye Diggs' Roland is to get married at a fancy backyard wedding. In the grip of prenuptial jitters, Roland has gotten drunk and taken refuge at the home of his tart but stalwart high school sweetheart (Tamala Jones), where he is retrieved by his best pals, Mike (Omar Epps) and Slim (Richard T. Jones). In the process of sobering up Roland and getting him to his wedding on time, the three start reminiscing, looking back to 1986 when 14-year-old Mike (Sean Nelson), fresh from North Carolina, met Slim (Duane Finley) and Roland (Trent Cameron) in junior high. The film unfolds from the point of view of Mike, the film's narrator.
Music, the latest styles and, way above all else, girls, are on the boys' minds. Roland and Slim present themselves as the ultimate in cool to the uncertain newcomer even though they are faking it at least part of the time. They put Mike up to making a grab at the most beautiful girl in their class--the whole school, really--the lovely and intelligent Alicia (Malinda Williams), failing to mention that her older brother, Stacey (De'Aundre Bonds), is one very protective and very bad dude. Yet both Alicia and Stacey are ultimately smart enough to see that Mike is a good guy who had been set up as a patsy, and Mike and Alicia begin a long and complicated relationship in which they become such good friends it impedes romance.
Indeed, "The Wood" is a film that honors women in their wisdom and patience for putting up with stubborn male reluctance in growing up. It suggests that even the smoothest, best-looking young men, the ones who have no trouble getting girls' phone numbers, can be achingly, hilariously clumsy in their initial forays into romance. As we move back and forth in time, we discover that the three friends are achievers, but Famuyiwa celebrates the value of friends just hanging out and having fun, something that's easy to lose sight of in this era that puts so much emphasis on competition.
Famuyiwa shrewdly makes no point of the fact that his heroes are black, but that they are implicitly underlines how solid their middle-class environment really is. This is the kind of black world that is not nearly so frequently portrayed in films as are poverty-stricken, drug-ridden ghettos. The strong pull of the security of their community upon the three friends, and the strength they derive from their firm bond, also says something about their wariness of the outside world.
The very large cast is a seamless pleasure, with the six actors playing the three friends in their early teens and late 20s standing out in their ability to range from high humor to dead seriousness. Bonds is a sly, dexterous comedian as Stacey, but the film's special joy is Williams, whose talent easily equals her beauty. "The Wood" is a winner.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and some strong sexuality. Times guidelines: the language is very strong yet very typical of most young males, and some lovemaking scenes, while humorous, are quite candid in regard to the realities of sex.
Taye Diggs: Roland
Omar Epps: Mike
Richard T. Jones: Slim
Sean Nelson: Young Mike
A Paramount Pictures presentation of an MTV Films production in association with Bona Fide Productions. Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa; from a story by Famuyiwa and Todd Boyd. Producers Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, David Gale. Executive producer Van Toffler. Cinematographer Steven Bernstein. Editor John Carter. Music supervisor Pilar McCurry. Costumes Darryle Johnson. Production designers Roger Fortune and Maxine Shepard. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
In general release.