Although the recent coming-of-age teen comedy Dope felt like the emphatic debut of a just-out-of-film school youngster (in terms of energy, not competence) it was actually the work of a director who’s been lurking in Hollywood for more than 15 years. In that time, Rick Famuyiwa has only been able to get four feature films off the ground, which, judging by the two I’ve seen, is a total shame. Famuyima has a smart, authentic, straightforward lens through which he examines youth & nostalgia, both in his most recent effort Dope & in his actual debut, a small-scale charmer made for MTV Films 15 years ago called The Wood.
The Wood & Dope have a lot in common besides the name in the director’s credit. While Dope is set in the present it looks back to 90s music & fashion for inspiration. The Wood splits its time between (the then present) 1999 & flashbacks to the 1980s, equally conscious of reconstructing the styles & sounds of a bygone era as Dope. The flashback chapters of The Wood are introduced through spinning vinyl records, Jheri curls are hilariously abundant, and the high school age protagonists wear clothes so dated that they’ve already had their vintage cool heyday and have gone back to tacky again. Both Dope & The Wood feature protagonists speaking directly to the audience, follow young teens getting into heaps of trouble trying to shed their virginity, happen to include a disgusting puke gag, and discuss the small changes of course that can turn a young nerd into a perceived-violent criminal in the particularly hazardous social minefield of Inglewood, California, where both movies are set. As if that weren’t enough of a solid connection, both films also feature a character named Stacey played by actor De’aundre Bondsl, who are ostensibly the same person (although Dope doesn’t make that connection explicit).
Of course, Dope & The Wood aren’t exact copies of each other and if I had to choose a favorite of the two, I’m inclined to lean towards the more energetic cartoonishness of Dope. The Wood does stand up quite well on its own, though, and helps to reveal a director with a keen eye for nostalgia & growing pains instead of the out-of-nowhere youngin’ with something to prove that I assumed directed Dope when I first saw the trailers. With these two films Famuyiwa establishes a genuine, confident voice that allows him to both tackle the intricacies of gang violence & the inconvenience of public boners. If you enjoyed Dope, I highly recommend giving The Wood a look for context. If you’ve already seen & enjoyed both, maybe just keep an eye out for Famuyiwa’s other films, both past & future. That’s what I plan on doing, anyway.