Dope is a smart urban homage to the legacy of John Hughes films, but still manages to distinguish itself as something uniquely special.
Dope once again transports us into writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s hometown of Inglewood, California, only this time from a different perspective: that of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a self-confessed geeky brainiac with a penchant for comic books, playing punk rock music, and immersing himself in late ’80s/early ’90s hip-hop fashion, music and memorabilia. Malcolm and his two friends (boyish lesbian Diggy, and quirky (Latino?)(Middle-eastern?) kid, Jib) spend their days getting good grades, jamming out at band practice, and dreaming about girls – while also looking to better college days ahead, finally freed from their rough-an-tumble neighborhood, “The Bottoms.”
That easy jog over the senior year finish line comes to an abrupt end the night Malcolm decides to chase his longtime neighborhood crush, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), into the lion’s den; aka, the night club birthday party of local drug boss, Dom (A$AP Rocky). The drug dealer’s birthday bash ends with a police raid and guns blazing (naturally), but the joy of a narrow escape is short-lived, as Malcolm discovers that Dom has stashed a large amount of drugs in his backpack. That little turn of events sparks a series of hazardous misadventures, as Malcolm, Diggy and Jib are forced out of their squeaky-clean geek bubble, into the wild urban jungle of “The Bottoms” and its violent drug market.
As a coming-of-age tale, Dope plays like Superbad meets House Party by way of Breaking Bad. That comparison is somewhat reductive, however, as the DNA of those of aforementioned stories is mixed and distilled through the imagination and vision of Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood), into a fun, lively, funny, and ultimately insightful teen movie odyssey. Dope is a smart urban homage to the legacy of John Hughes films, but still manages to distinguish itself as something uniquely special.
As writer and director of the film, Famuyiwa is in full creative control of the world and characters he’s building, which works entirely to the movie’s benefit. On a directorial front, he unabashedly (and wisely) steals more than a couple plays from the Hughes handbook (narrator voice-over, fourth wall breaking, split-screen, rewind and fast-forward, certain visual gags, etc…) infusing them with his personal flavor and bending them to fit the world, customs, dialect and mannerisms of modern inner-city Inglewood.
Early ’90s African-American coming-of-age dramas like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society turned inner city LA into a frightening jungle of predators and teenage victims, while a film like Friday conversely offered a ’90s LA coming-of-age story that managed to transform “the hood” into a ripe comedic landscape. Dope lands in a middle-ground of sorts, wherein the colorful LA setting (vibrantly shot by Fruitvale Station cinematographer, Rachel Morrison) is always dynamic and fluid, alternating between funny, sad and scary depictions with a rhythm that is mostly (but not always) controlled and steady.
Few films that rely so heavily on a central locale also do so well in bringing that locale to life in full three-dimensional complexity and intimacy, but Dope gives an extensive tour of modern teen life in inner city LA, and does so with a confident but understated unique point of view. Famuyiwa smartly infuses his unique movie (and its unique story) with enough familiar teen movie tropes (those nods to Hughes) to make the journey accessible and fun for moviegoers from all walks of life.
The same can be said of Famuyiwa’s script for the film, which distills the commonalities of teen experience (sex, drugs, music, misadventure, school) through the unique world of Inglewood. When it comes to dialogue and banter, Dope follows in the foul-mouthed tradition of House Party (if the dreaded “N-word” makes you uneasy, this movie will not be comfortable); however, the obscenity and raunch actually help to balance the intense mind and heart that shows through the character of Malcolm and his story.
From a narrative standpoint, Dope is structured in three clear acts, defined by the three common definitions of the term “dope” (drugs, a fool, something significantly cool). Those three acts aren’t entirely in sync as they transition from one to the other (there’s an episodic unevenness in the narrative flow), but those small bumps are easy to overlook, since the narrative, as a whole, does a sound job developing the character of Malcolm in each act of the film. By the end (which invokes fourth wall-breaking insights, by way of Ferris Bueller), we’ve seen Malcolm progress through a more significant character arc than most teen film protagonists. Dope leaves us with a fully-formed impression of a unique and memorable character – one who, but on the lower frequencies, shatters stereotype and stigma about young black males, giving voice to the many “Malcolms” (i.e., atypical teens, full of potential) scattered throughout urban America.
Malcolm (or the community he inhabits) wouldn’t be what he is without the talent of Shameik Moore, who comes catapulting out of the Cartoon Network sketch comedy show Incredible Crew, owning the screen in a well-earned breakout performance. Moore employs a wide-eyed nice guy naiveté at the start, but it’s an attitude that expands and changes throughout the film’s proceedings, slowly peeling away and revealing more dimensions to Malcolm that even he doesn’t know are there. Moore handles all of that transition wonderfully, demonstrating wit and comedic timing, sensitivity and vulnerability, and at key times, hard will and frightening resolve. It’s a great breakout for the young actor, and Malcolm is a great geek icon, when all is said and done.
Backing up Moore is Kiersey Clemons as Diggy, a great character that Clemons elevates into a unique and hilarious sidekick for Malcolm. Diggy as a character shatters so many of the usual tropes and stereotypes (boyish lesbian of the hard inner city, smart, sensitive, unapologetic, witty), and Clemons appears to have all the fun in the world throwing around her character’s no-nonsense swagger and verbal jabs. Rounding out the trio is Grand Budapest Hotel actor Tony Revolori, who once again demonstrates a keen sense for comedy, playing Jib as a quirky but vaguely cool and mysterious geek smart-ass. The movie’s best cutaway and sight gags often come from Revolori, who can turn even his presence in the background or peripheral of a shot into something worth watching.
There’s a wide range of supporting players in the movie, with everyone delivering, but a few standing out from the pack. Rapper A$AP Rocky and model Chanel Iman are already established celebrity personas, but both do surprisingly well with their respective acting debuts here in Dope. Rocky (real name Rakim Mayers) does a witty send up of his own rapper persona as drug-dealer Dom, while Iman goes for broke in the physical comedy department, turning her model looks on their head to play Lily, a crazy rich girl with a penchant for MDMA and nudity.
Comedic actor Blake Anderson follows in his Workaholics co-stars’ footsteps, turning his persona from the show into a funny bit character, as Malcolm’s musical/stoner/hacker/activist friend, Will. Zoë Kravitz follows Mad Max: Fury Road with another understated but well-carried role as a mysterious and complex beauty who is never really fully developed or explored – while another celebrity progeny, Quincy Brown (son of R&B icon Al B. Sure, and Sean “Puffy” Combs’ adopted son) makes a memorable bit character out of Jaleel, Lilly’s wannabe gangster rapper brother. From there, Dope offers appearances from some famous actors, comedians, musicians, athletes, and celebrities popping up onscreen, usually to hilarious effect.
In the end, Dope is at once something fresh, something familiar (with its throwback style and booming ’90s hip-hop soundtrack), and everything one hopes for in an edgy teen coming-of-age tale (fun humor, relatable characters, and the universality of teen (in)experience). By the third act, things may have taken too drastic a turn for some viewers’ liking, but in the end, Famuyiwa manages to steer the ship back into port smoothly, with characters who show experience, fortitude and growth from their odyssey out on the rough seas of urban life. This is the proper sort counter-programming to the summer blockbuster barrage; something with a little more heart, a little more soul, and a little more substance. Take a hit of this dopeness.
Dope is 103 minutes long and is Rated R for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence – all involving teens. It is now playing in the U.S. in a limited theatrical release.
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