Release: Friday, June 19, 2015
Written by: Rick Famuyiwa
Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa
Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance darling isn’t particularly revelatory filmmaking, but it’s much more intelligent than its dopey title suggests, rejecting racial stereotypes and erasing cultural gaps as confidently as it embraces its young leading trio as a righteous symbol of individualism.
Dope channels an infectious spirit à la executive producer Pharrell Williams’ hit single ‘Happy’ via a cast brimming with fresh, relatively undiscovered talent, evolving its giddy comedic approach through a series of misadventures experienced by three geeky teens growing up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood referred to as “The Bottoms” — translated geographically, Inglewood.
There’s Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore), who’s trapped in the ’90s with his flat-top haircut and loud clothing; Diggy (22-year-old Kiersey Clemons in her first big screen role), a lesbian who cares not for what anyone thinks about her preference for dressing a little differently; and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s very own Tony Revolori), who may seem like a misfit but his 14% African blood speaks for itself, thank you very much. The threesome jam in a punk-rock band and are very close, but the film places extra emphasis on Malcolm as his investment in academics and in trying to get into Harvard make for a character that shames most archetypal movie teens. He’s focused on what’s most important to him, while trying to avoid ending up on the wrong street corner at the wrong time.
One afternoon he’s not so lucky, targeted by A$ap Rocky’s Dom as he bikes home from school down a particularly dangerous street. The encounter introduces Malcolm to a whole new world he’s woefully ill-equipped to deal with, a world where drugs, violence and gang affiliation reign supreme. When his delicate flirtations with Dom’s former flame Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) grant him admission into a club party, he ends up with some precious cargo in his school bag, subjugating him and his friends to the kind of sudden attention no one wants or needs.
Dope is sheltered comfortably under the ‘coming-of-age’ umbrella, making quick work of establishing an environment which its oddball characters desperately need to outgrow and move away from. Contrary to the relationship Malcolm shares with his geeky friends, it is with Nakia whom he chases the same light at the end of the tunnel. They both are college-bound hopefuls, though unfortunately Nakia’s aspirations hardly take center stage or much of the stage at all. The negligence doesn’t come at the cost of the film’s enjoyability, though Dope‘s failure to fully develop Malcolm’s female equivalent is a backwards step given its adherence to creating real people in real environments. Ultimately, Kravitz fulfills the requirements of a slightly less obvious token girl, one whose preference for book-smart boys rather than the street-wise thugs she’s surrounded by isn’t enough to escape cliché.
Nonetheless, and despite strong supporting performances, Moore’s fish-out-of-water remains the driving force behind Dope‘s emphasis on individuality. Malcolm, determined to put “The Bottoms” behind him, ironically turns to dope-dealing as a way to rid himself of the contents of his bag. Handing the bag over to the proper authorities is obviously out of the question. The narrative devotes most of its time to the boy desperately attempting to dispose of the stigma of a misled youth possessing illicit drugs and weapons. One scene in particular brilliantly showcases how close Malcolm comes to succumbing to stereotypes. Fortunately, the incident is a rare blemish on an otherwise thoroughly endearing character.
It’d be more accurate to describe the moment as Dope‘s most piercing truth about human nature, on how certain societal pressures render even the most strong-willed susceptible to change. Malcolm, even with his myriad rare qualities — you know, the kind that afford him a daily ass-beating in school hallways — is far from a role model. One of the more ridiculous but oddly satisfying cultural probes is this group’s fascination with talking as though they were from the street. They constantly refer to ‘bitches’ and ‘dope’ despite their physical appearance indicating they’ve rarely (if ever) been in tough circles, at least up until this moment wherein they’ve been forced to conform to them.
Dope‘s vibrant characters brushing shoulders with the brutal realities of street life in particularly impoverished communities like “The Bottoms” makes for surprisingly entertaining viewing. The title may betray Famuyiwa’s seriousness of purpose, but there’s no denying the dynamic energy and off-beat, charming performances from his young stars do its coming-of-age themes justice.
Recommendation: To belabor the point, the film’s title is unfortunate. It’s likely going to have a negative effect on attendance. Although, its wide release is exciting and the sharp wit and incredibly fun characters deserve to be seen by far more than those who are actually going to spend the money on a theater viewing. Anyone up for an alternative to this weekend’s major Pixar release ought to take a chance on this one.
Running Time: 103 mins.
Quoted: “Some brother really needs to invent an app like Ways to Avoid All These Hood Traps.”
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