There's a scene about halfway through "The Wood" that typifies the winsome ways of this bright comedy from first-time director and writer Rick Famuyiwa. True-blue buddies Mike (Sean Nelson), Slim (Duane Finley) and Roland (Trent Cameron) are trolling a convenience store, playfully discussing the halitosis-fighting power of chewing gum and breath mints, when rough-and-tumble Blood gang member Stacey (De'Aundre Bonds) and an equally surly sidekick show up to rob the place.
The guy waving the gun around, it turns out, recently pummeled Mike during a schoolyard fight. But now he's a stoned-out nice guy, encouraging the trio of younger kids to help themselves to anything on the shelves: "Want something? Take a Pepsi if you're thirsty," he cheerfully offers. Shortly later, Stacey insists that the three pals accept a ride back to the junior-high dance. Police stop the car on the way, but nobody is connected to the crime.
That scene, in the hands of a filmmaker interested in going for something that might be perceived as edgy and hip, surely would have been defined by a bloody corpse or two, a nasty confrontation with the cops and maybe a pulverizing piece of gangsta rap meant to celebrate the nihilistic pleasure of the survivors.
Famuyiwa, a 25-year-old graduate of the USC film program, instead allows his semi-autobiographical story to unfold rather leisurely, and peoples it with African-American characters whose ethnicity nearly doesn't matter. In other words, these kids -- unlike those in American Pie and nearly every other teen flick of the last few years -- share their triumphs and troubles in a manner that seems familiar, like something not altogether alien to real life. What's more, this movie, while spiked with enough trash talk to earn its "R" rating, is refreshingly devoid of the cruelty and nasty behavior we've come to expect from the latest wave of youth-oriented films.
"The Wood," to its detriment, is only partly constructed as a flashback, as Mike (Omar Epps of "Juice" and "Scream 2") and Slim (Richard T. Jones of "Kiss the Girls") attempt to convince a drunk Roland (Taye Diggs of How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Go) to show up to his own wedding.
They pass the time by driving around in an SUV, eating pizza and reminiscing about fondly remembered late-'80s hijinks. Too bad Famuyiwa didn't skip the uninspired framing device and stick with the action back in the day. The contemporary scenes are always disappointing, mainly because these successful 20-something achievers aren't nearly as interesting as their younger selves. And who decided to have Mike speak directly to the camera at the start, and then completely abandon that technique?
Much of the initial fun is generated by Mike's arrival to Englewood, Calif. (thus the title), from North Carolina. He's quickly welcomed into the social scene by Slim and Roland, who trick the new student into making a particularly blatant pass at the much-desired Alicia (Malinda Williams). That booty grab isn't much appreciated by Alicia's fiercely protective older brother, the aforementioned Stacey.
The buddies subsequently spend much time thinking about, well, what all kids devote plenty of energy to thinking about. Slim and Roland swagger around, bragging about their sexual prowess, but never quite seem to score. Mike, on the other hand, musters the strength to approach Alicia at a dance, and forges a solid relationship that seems to promise more.
The friends of "The Wood" don't engage in manic rivalry, or double crosses, or cheating with someone else's lover. They'd rather hang out, goofing on each other and providing a sort of mutual-support club. It all makes for a coming-of-age tale that's only occasionally too sweet.