The days of playing maids and houseboys may be long gone, but it's never been easy being black in Hollywood. After the initial creative surge of Do The Right Thing and Boyz N The Hood, black actors and directors had a tough few years trying to avoid the pitfalls of racial stereotyping. Post-Will Smith, though, this MTV-produced comedy drama is a bold and enjoyable attempt to make a mainstream African-American movie that doesn't trot out the usual cliches.
Based on the childhood experiences of first-time helmer Famuyiwa, who penned the screenplay while working at Niketown, The Wood takes its name from Inglewood, a normal middle-class suburb. In the first flashback, 14-year-old residents Roland and Slim try to scare new boy Mike, fresh in from North Carolina, with tales of gang shootings, but Famuyiwa makes a point of avoiding major drama. The first gang members the boys encounter are laughably inept and terrified at the thought of ending up in chokey. Nobody gets addicted to crack and nobody dies in a drive-by.
Most of the laughs - and they include some rib-tickling set pieces 'stem from a keen understanding of the idiocy of hormone-addled teenage boys: the crap attempts at sexy dancing, the daft clothes and the endless bravado. Thanks to the spot-on period detail, with each flashback triggered by a classic tune from hip hop's golden age, it's nostalgia with bite. Looking back at their younger selves (superbly played by Sean Nelson, Duane Finley and Trent Cameron), Mike, Slim and Roland realise being in their 20's and settling down doesn't have to seem so bad.
If you think all of this whiffs of sentimentality, you'd be half-right, and some of the slushier moments are overdone. The plot, too, is fairly predictable... Will Roland walk up the aisle? Will Mike reunite with his high school sweetheart? Work it out for yourself - but the immensely likeable cast and affectionate humour compensate healthily. By making a virtue of portraying ordinary people in ordinary situations without overplaying, The Wood thank- fully avoids the need to be tagged as a black film, just as a good one.
Deliberately short on thrills, this study of friendship and nostalgia bobs along nicely, with plenty of comic moments. With echoes of Dazed And Confused and Swingers, it's a feelgood flick for twentysomething blokes who are soft at heart.