The Wood

(USA 1999)
R for strong language and some strong sexuality

Omar Epps, Taye Diggs, Richard T. Jones, Sean Nelson, and Malinda Williams

Director: Kevin Rodney Sullivan

Writing credits: Rick Famuyiwa

Paramount Pictures


If you're just surfing the web before settling down to write that screenplay that's been burning inside you for years, make sure it's a blockbuster. An action flick. Apocalyptic sci-fi. A bubbly romantic comedy. Anything but the Coming Of Age Story.

Don't get me wrong, there are some great films in this genre, and I've enjoyed manyof them. But as a budding screenwriter, caution is necessary. Coming-of-age films are difficult; you can't win, no matter what you do. You have to simultaneously show the shared experience we all had as kids, while being different enough to be an interesting story. This Mobius Strip paradox is on full display in THE WOOD, a sweet C-O-A film that often misfires when it tries to be different and the same all at once.

Director Rick Famuyiwa has called THE WOOD his 'love letter to Englewood, California', and he has made this film with obvious affection for the city and its denizens. Crime is tangential here, the families are solidly middle-class, and most everyone is thinking playfully about love, sex, and commitment. Because of its African-American cast, I'm sure many will compare it to Soul Food, which shares its brightly bland spirit. But I think it shares more in common with films like Stand By Me or My Own Private Idaho, where the rite of passage is more pronounced. THE WOOD doesn't have much bite, but it is rich in flashbacks, fond memories, and hagiography.

We start in the present: Roland (Taye Diggs) is getting married in three hours, but he's vanished. It's up to his two childhood best friends who are also his best men, Mike (Omar Epps) and Slim (Richard T. Jones), to go find him. They find him at his former girlfriend's house, drunk and unsure about his impending nuptials. It's a classic setup for reveries and looking back, which the three boys do with vigor. The movie trips back and forth between the present and the mid-80's, where we see the boys fall in love, lose their virginity, and learn those all-important Life Lessons.

The story isn't original, but it's desperately trying to please the audience. Director Rick Famuyiwa is making a desperate plea for you to love his hometown as much as he does. He's shouldn't try so hard; these characters are mostly loveable lunkheads, and his panic to impress the viewer has resulted in some confusing, unnecessary elements that could have been avoided or eliminated (i.e., inexplicable direct address to the camera in the first quarter of the film, which disappears thereafter).

Omar Epps, as the lead character Mike, is serviceable but not brilliant; his younger flashback self, played by newcomer Sean Nelson, is much more nuanced and provocative. Taye Diggs, however, is alternately hilarious and sad as the groom-in-crisis Roland. While Diggs has impressed with his roles in Broadway's Rent and the films Go and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, this is without a doubt his most textured and entertaining work to date. Richard T. Jones is jovial and fun as Slim, but doesn't add much to the tale. Of special note, however, is Malinda Williams. She plays Alicia, Mike's junior-high sweetheart and lifelong friend, with a depth and honesty that makes the rest of the film look trite by comparison.

While it's not worth the movie price, it'll make a great afternoon rental with family or friends. THE WOOD is far from perfect, but it's a noble attempt at a very difficult genre. Kudos.

- Gabriel Shanks


(This review originally appeared at Movie Bodega in 1999)






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