Film Review: Dope

Wildly entertaining, aptly humorous, modern-day coming-of-age tale set in “The Bottoms” of Inglewood. 'Dope' shines with ’90s attitude, classic hip-hop tunes and a star-making performance by Shameik Moore.
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Coming-of-age stories have become almost synonymous with the Sundance Film Festival over the years. And 2015 was no exception when it came to the number of teens who grew into their own voices across the screens of Park City. But every now and then, after the festival dust settles, some of these said titles prove to have the goods to back up the praise they have received and the hearts they have stolen in the mountains of Utah. The big award winner and hype generator Me and Earl and the Dying Girl–currently in theatres–isn’t made up of that magical stuff for me, but writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s vibrantly energetic Dope very much is.

With infectious verve and undeniable positivity, Dope warmly embraces several expected formulas of the genre (actually a mixture of genres–comedy, action and crime), only to sharply disobey and playfully discard them later on in telling a heartening Los Angeles tale with unapologetic authenticity. Filled with pertinent pop-culture references and pulsating with a signature hip-hop attitude (and music) every step of the way, Dope’s ’90s-romancing joie de vivre is instantly contagious.

The story is about Malcolm (Shameik Moore in a star-making performance), a self-defined ’90s-obsessed geek from “The Bottoms” of Inglewood in Los Angeles, raised by a single mom working as a bus driver. Living in the roughest of rough neighborhoods doesn’t seem to obstruct Malcolm’s perspective of himself and his grand plans, however. With his ’90s-style clothing, flattop and sweetly innocent demeanor, he immediately sends the vibes of an outcast, yet he confidently (but never arrogantly) owns his identity and makes up his own circle with his best friends/band-mates—mellow-mannered Jib (Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel) and outspoken lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). It’s no coincidence that even the security guards at their school entrance don’t seem to think this particular trio needs to be scanned before entering, or that they could possibly have anything to hide.

Spending his days prepping for the fast-approaching SATs and practicing his music with his band, Malcolm dreams of getting into Harvard and refuses to meld into his environment’s low expectations of him. He finds even his teacher–who frowns upon Malcolm’s college application essay on Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”–needs convincing that Malcolm can defy clichés. While trying to befriend and impress Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), a girl he desperately likes, Malcolm unfortunately finds himself in the inner social circle of the street-smart drug dealer Dom (played by rapper A$AP Rocky) and in the midst of a complicated drug-trafficking ploy, facing a crossroads that could risk everything he’s worked for. It also doesn’t help that his college mentorship interview happens to be with the very leader of the scheme he’s somehow fallen into: a Harvard-alumnus councilman (also from The Bottoms originally) with a self-made fortune. So what will Malcolm do in the end?

The answer to this question is Dope’s main plot point, and therefore where the real action begins. In fairness, this significant twist takes a bit of time to make an appearance and settle in, yet this gives the audience more opportunity to spend time with Malcolm and his friends before they are thrown into the fire, and appreciate the nature of their dilemma all the more intimately. As the kids bounce from place to place and eventually take matters into their own hands thanks to the anonymity of Bitcoins and a high-tech-nerd, Will (Blake Anderson), Dope turns into a Tarantinoesque tale of crime with well-played humor around race, class and even gender. The cleverly written dialogue touches upon every imaginable facet of the social dynamics of today’s interconnected world and doesn’t shy from touchy racial topics. One particular sequence in which Diggy schools Will–a white boy from Brentwood–on the usage of the “N” word (meaning, who is allowed to use it) is especially unnervingly but aptly funny. Dope is a freewheeling film that bites into many ideas, and the success of Famuyiwa (along with the infinitely appealing cast) lies in keeping everything intact while entertaining his audience through a comedy of errors for the digital age.

Dope rewards with its craft as much as its story. Rachel Morrison’s cinematography paints the city with a colorful, balmy palette and conveys the fast-paced nature of Malcolm’s story without a glitch. The Sundance-winning (but somehow critically dismissed) editing moves the film along with ease, while the musical tracks–including some original ones by Pharrell Williams (also an executive producer of the film) written for the kids’ band–beg to be hummed long after the end credits roll. Dope is designed to win an audience over, and between its quietly touching moments and outrageous turns, it worthily does.

Click here for cast and crew information.