Better than the average bear, as Yogi used to say. In The Wood, the tried-and-true nostalgic high school buddy movie formula is in full swing, but because the script is intelligent, the acting energetic and the dialogue for the most part decently written, there is substance given to the characters’ lives. This means that although the core of the plot is the inevitable "who-kin-grab-da-most-booty," we actually end up caring about each of the combatants in the battle between the sexes at a junior high and high school in Inglewood, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles.
Booty – in its many permutations and definitions – seems to obsess these kids in The Wood. There is Mike’s (Omar Epps) first day in school when his two new buddies, Slim (Richard T. Jones) and Roland (Taye Diggs), convince Mike he has to go grab beautiful Alicia’s (Malinda Williams) booty. They neglect to tell him her brother Stacy (Sean Nelson) is a hard-core Blood, and that after school Stacy will kick Mike’s booty. Then there is the First Booty bet (see "Pussy Pot," below).
Nelson’s sweet gangster role is brilliant. He’s willing to beat up anyone who talks to his sister, but once Mike has "stood up to his whuppin’ like an old G," Stacy now wants to help Mike get closer to Alicia. His desire to be a nice guy, even while robbing convenience stores ("you guys over there? Want something? Take a Pepsi if you’re thirsty") is appealing and very funny.
Booty jokes aside, it’s nice to see black kids with brains. These kids are smart. Marriage is a scary thing. When Roland is terrified of his upcoming wedding, he disappears. Mike and Slim have to go find him, and it leads the three into a series of reminiscences. Mike was a seventh grader, newly moved to California from North Carolina when he was befriended by Slim and Ro. They spent the next six years as best friends, shy Mike usually being victimized by Slim and Ro’s pranks, while retaining his voice as conscience of the story.
Being a new kid in a new school is nothing new for the movies. Mike’s tribulations are no different
from a hundred other films about the same subject. In How Green Was My Valley (1940) little Huw Morgan’s walk over the hill to his new Welsh school got him a beating at the hand of the strict English instructor, and in 1999 Mike’s efforts to woo Alicia get him a whuppin’ from Stacy. But be the battle line drawn between the Welsh and the English or the Bloods and the Crips, the issue is the same: our hero has to overcome his shyness in his new situation and rise above it to become a
stronger, more mature person.
Of course a film that is written for a youth market will always have plenty to quibble about. If a "pussy pot" (the jar where the boys put their bets that will go to the one who scores first with a girl) or other down-home (read: filthy) language is going to bother you, this is not the film for you. Mike’s lead character could use development. Why Alicia went to New York is never explained. Someone looking for meaning beyond this film’s modest aspirations is bound to be disappointed.
But as teen films go, and black teen films in particular (e.g. the reprehensible Trippin‘), The Wood is better than most. You might even work up a small tear at the end, when the lights come up and you have to drag your booty off the chair and go home.