The Wood has aged into a better film today than it was 15 years ago.
Nostalgia is comfort food for the soul. Life’s milestones call for blitzes of it that are unavoidable because it’s nearly impossible to think about where you’re going without reflecting on where you’ve been. This is the premise for Rick Famuyiwa’s underrated coming-of-age tale, The Wood. Released 15 years ago today, the film follows three friends as they prepare for one’s wedding. Over the course of the day, the trio find themselves fondly reminiscing on their youth while coming to grips with the future’s uncertainty. Since its 1999 release, The Wood has attained a cult following because it focuses on a relatable experience: growing up. What makes it unique is that the generation that grew up on the film has seen it become even more enjoyable over time.
Told through the eyes of Mike (Omar Epps), The Wood opens (brilliantly with Ahmad’s "Back in the Day") just hours before Roland’s (Taye Diggs) wedding, only the groom is M.I.A. Mike and a hilariously irritated Slim (Richard T. Jones) eventually locate him—drunk and suffering from cold feet—at the home of a former girlfriend. During their quest to get Roland to the altar, the group recalls their teenage years growing up in Inglewood, Calif. during the 1980s. As the last piece to the puzzle, Mike serves as the narrator for the group’s exploits.
The Wood’s strongest scenes have always been the flashbacks, as the film spends more time with young Mike, Slim, and Roland (Sean Nelson, Duane Finley, and Trent Cameron) than their adult counterparts. Their strength lies in the fact that they offer something everyone can connect with. Through Mike, Roland, and Slim’s first interaction, viewers will remember the first time they met their lifelong friends. Mike dancing with Alicia (played by Malinda Williams as teenager and Sanaa Lathan as an adult) to Luther Vandross and Cheryl Lynn’s cover of "If This World Were Mine" while trying avoid the embarrassment of a dance floor erection speaks to that first awkward, intimate moment with your first love. Mike and Alicia losing their virginity to each other to the sound of After 7’s fitting "Ready or Not" taps into perhaps the most intimate and vulnerable moment of teenage existence.
As the late Roger Ebert wrote in his review, the way these "rites of passage" are honestly depicted is why The Wood was so well-received. "We see Mike getting a crush on a girl," Ebert wrote. "Working up the nerve to ask her to dance. Not knowing what to say. Being encouraged by the girl's friendship—and yes, her sympathy."
These adolescent trials, along with the first sexual experience, endeared the film to audiences. If you initially saw The Wood as a teenager or pre-teen, you most likely felt strong ties to the ‘80s sequences, as they were congruent with your own experiences. As you grow older, these segments develop an even deeper meaning because the sentimental glow of your memories grows stronger with each passing year. But The Wood’s transformation into a new phenomenon when viewed as an adult truly takes place once your friends start getting married.
Over the past few years, I’ve had two friends and a cousin leap into holy matrimony, and I, like Mike and Slim, have been part of two of the ceremonies. At various points during each wedding, I’ve found myself thinking, "We’ve done it. We’ve finally lived The Wood." While I’ve never had to play bounty hunter to a missing groom or deal with a vomit-soaked suit mere hours the big event, each wedding has forced me to think about the good times I’ve had with my friends and family through the years. Weddings, regardless of how many you have, are landmark situations guaranteed to illicit unavoidable conversations about the past. It’s impossible to assemble your loved ones without someone sparking up the requisite discussions of happy memories while in the midst of creating a new one.
Above that, marriage is the beginning of a new chapter in the lives of everyone involved. Things change for all parties, as families grow and new bonds are formed, but the old ones are never broken. Change is inevitable, and even with the promise of a new future on the horizon, it’s human nature for the mind to travel back to familiar times with friends—the glory days you tried to extend for as long as humanly possible.
I can vividly remember watching The Wood with my friends during one of those college Saturdays where you could relish in having nothing at all to do. Aside from each of us laughing at it like it was the first time we'd seen the movie, we drew the parallels to the narrative of our own friendship. This went as far as unanimously identifying the Roland of the group, sans the last-minute trepidation about marriage. Sure enough, he was the first one of us to get married, and during an NBA All-Star Weekend excursion last year that was reminiscent of our college adventures (a mixed-gender bachelor party before the traditional bachelor party, if you will), I asked him how we managed to transition from college into legitimate adulthood, yet maintain the vigor that defined our undergraduate days.
"Whenever we get together, it’s just like old times," he told me. "It’s like The Wood." Instinct makes us want to recreate those times that we've held onto.
My favorite scene is a flashback to the homecoming dance from their high school days, where Mike, Slim, and Roland escape their dates. During this brief conference, jokes are exchanged about their dates talking too much or having them "running around like the Lakers," but it's interrupted by their expression of a mutual desire to live out every young man’s fantasy of "mackin’ and hangin’" for eternity. The wish, and literal accompanying song and dance, are things only high schoolers would think of in that moment, and my friends and I have often imitated the scene in homage to the film. Hell, we even did it at my friend’s wedding last year with the knowledge that the concept is a bottled dream. The Wood showed us that though nothing stays the same, maturation is never an obstacle to a friendship that’s more like a brotherhood.
The Wood is a movie that must be watched whenever it’s on because it evokes the warm feeling of cherished memories shared by friends. It’s become timeless and a more satisfying picture once you become an adult because you’ve experienced everything the main characters have. Throughout the journey to adulthood, we find ourselves inclined to try and freeze time, seeking refuge in the comfort of the past. The Wood has taught us not to live in that past, but to seize the moment while we’re in it. The memories will always be there; they’re part of a history created by you and friends that no one can erase.
To truly come of age, one must come full circle. Viewing The Wood as an adult compels you to evaluate your personal evolution, as you never realize where you are in life until you contemplate how far you’ve come. This becomes clear when you’re grown, and it’s why The Wood is even better now than it was 15 years ago. Our generation loves to find a cinematic connection to everything we do, so imagine what it will mean to us in another 15 years.
Fifteen years later, Julian Kimble will still drop everything and watch The Wood if it's on. Follow him on Twitter here.