Teetering Between Innocence and Danger
The title-card opening of Dope, a new film by writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, gives viewers three widely accepted definitions of the word dope: a drug; an idiot; and the slang word for excellent. In a refreshingly imaginative way, Famuyiwa manages to incorporate all three meanings into his film while shattering African-American movie character stereotypes and turning the entire genre on its head.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, best known as the bellhop in The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are obsessed with 1990s hip-hop culture as well as excelling in school and bettering their punk rock band, The Oreos. They’re geeks, basically, an unpopular trait for inner-city Inglewood, California, high school kids who want to fit in.
Between run-ins with local gang bangers and drug dealers in his blighted neighborhood he calls “The Bottoms,” Malcolm has hopes of attending Harvard once he graduates. But few economic opportunities, poor or absent parenting, and an abundance of school bullies lower his chances -- and those of his friends -- at finding a way out. That is, until he does a favor for a local drug lord (Rakim Mayers) with hopes of getting closer to the dealer’s girlfriend, Nakia (Zoé Karvitz), and instead unknowingly ending up with a back-pack full of the designer drug known as Molly. Unable to return the stash to its rightfully imprisoned owner, Malcolm concocts a wild but ingenious plan to sell the dope on the black market using a series of anonymous computers and untraceable currency known as bitcoins.
With its occasional scatter-brained focus and too many characters involved in too many subplots, Dope often feels like the debut product of an amateur filmmaker. But it’s this constant teetering between innocence and danger that gives the film its can’t-look-away charisma. Like a mash-up of Risky Business (or anything by John Hughes) and Boyz in the Hood, the film becomes riotously funny but never shies away from the realistically-depicted danger facing Malcolm and his friends around every corner. It takes full advantage of its hard “R” rating, but at other times comes across as simplistically corny as it can be. The nudity -- mostly from the sister of a wealthy friend -- often feels gratuitous and detracts from the film. But hey, if you get the rating, might as well take advantage of it, right?
Another of the film’s high points involves the debut big-screen performance of Moore in the lead role. His Malcolm wears a retro “Fresh Prince” high-top fade above acid-washed jeans and bright white Air Jordan’s. In Famuyiwa’s world, Malcolm is a brilliant kid caught in the worst of circumstances, and Moore depicts the character’s complexity with ease, often saying more with his facial expressions than with spoken words, which is only appropriate since natural dialogue seems to be one of Famuyiwa’s weaknesses.
One thing that can’t be said about the film, however, is that it is predictable by falling into genre formula. Yes, it is a sometimes too-truthful coming-of-age drama about minority kids -- mostly African American -- who struggle in the filthy pit of a crime-ridden inner city. But to lump it in with other similarly-plotted films misses its purpose. The movie ends up being an all-too-truthful depiction that would sting were it not so darn loose and funny. To put it in Malcolm’s own words, Famuyiwa’s film is kind of dope.
(Released by Open Road Films and rated “R” for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence -- all involving teens.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.