So-called "urban" films almost always tend to be consigned to a box office ghetto of their own, rarely connecting beyond its target African-American audiences, even if the film has cross-demographic appeal. Even with the promotional muscle of MTV Productions behind it, THE WOOD is not likely to be an exception to the rule, but this warm and funny, if somewhat uneven, film deserves to be.
The film's title refers to Inglewood, California, and if anyone outside of the Southern California area knows about the city, it's for either one of two reasons: (1) it's the home of the Great Western Forum, longtime arena to the Los Angeles Lakers (at least until this coming fall); or (2) it's known for its gang activity. The latter would be the obvious angle to pursue, but aside from the gang connections of one secondary character, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa admirably skirts the issue. Famuyiwa grew up in Inglewood, and his take on the city is an affectionate portrait that could be of any given community; it has many different qualities (including, as it is, gangs) that contribute to its unique flavor.
Similarly universal, if more than a little formulaic, is its story, which tracks a group of three friends over a span of 13 years. The main character is Mike (played as a teen by Sean Nelson, as an adult by Omar Epps), who moves to The Wood from North Carolina in 1986. In junior high he immediately clicks with Wood natives Roland (played as a teen by Trent Cameron, as an adult by Taye Diggs) and Slim (played as a teen by Duane Finley, as an adult by Richard T. Jones), and together they come of age through high school. As is with the case of all young men of the teen age, sex dominates the brain, and in a sense THE WOOD can be seen as a (slightly) less crass cousin to AMERICAN PIE; there are no outrageous gross-out gags, but the trio's attempts to initiate themselves are humorous in how they are so firmly grounded in honest reality.
As can be gleaned from the actor credits, there is also a parallel story that follows the trio as adults, and, unfortunately, it is not as interesting as the teenage story. In 1999, it's Roland's wedding day, and hours before the ceremony, he's nowhere to be found; Mike and Slim eventually do locate him, but he's plagued with doubt. The flashbacks are meant to punctuate the contemporary action, but the '99 scenes feel like needless interruptions in the story that runs through '86 and '89. This is no fault of the likable and charismatic actors, even if Epps is called on to address the camera directly for the film's first 15 minutes.
While I found that device to be distracting, it is in line with the theme of the film, which is this idea of community and belonging, which, of course, can be broken down to friendship. Over the course of THE WOOD, one really grows to know and like these people as well as get a keen feeling of their place and time; by the film's final toast, one feels as if they are indeed part of The Wood.