Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa.
Written by: Rick Famuyiwa.
Starring: Shameik Moore (Malcolm), Tony Revolori (Jib), Kiersey Clemons (Diggy), Zoë Kravitz (Nakia), A$ap Rocky (Dom), Blake Anderson (Will Sherwood), Kimberly Elise (Lisa Hayes), Chanel Iman (Lily), Roger Guenveur Smith (Austin Jacoby), Rick Fox (Councilman Blackmon), Allen Maldonado (Alan the Bouncer), De'aundre Bonds (Stacey), Keith Stanfield (Bug), Forest Whitaker (Narrator).
Malcolm is a high school senior living in The Bottoms, the roughest neighborhood of Inglewood – a suburb of Los Angeles. He’s a young black man, but as he informs the audience early on he and his two friends are into “white people stuff” – punk rock, Game of Thrones, good grades and getting into college. Malcolm actually has his sights set on Harvard – and got the grades and extracurriculars that may be enough – as long as he can ace the SATs and an upcoming alumni interview he has. But life in Malcolm’s area is fraught with peril – where he has to make choices between bad options like heading home from school down the street with the gang that wants to steal his shoes, or down the street where all the drug dealers hang out. Many things happen to Malcolm that probably wouldn’t happen to his more affluent peers – like going to a party at a club, ending up with a backpack full of the drug Molly, that a scary man tells you that you have to sell for him or face the consequences, so you get together with your nerdy friends to set up a website where you sell the drugs for Bitcoin.
Dope is the movie that tells Malcolm’s story in the most deliriously entertaining way possible – a mishmash of styles recalling the 1990s movies like Boyz in Hood or Juice, but also Pulp Fiction and Go and Risky Business and close to the end, early Spike Lee as well – all set to a great soundtrack that is either the 1990s hip-hop Malcolm is obsessed with, or the songs he and his band play, which sound much better than most high school rock bands because in actuality they’re written by Pharrell Williams – one of the films numerous famous producers. Dope sometime satirizes what its references, sometimes merely paying homage, and sometimes just downright stealing – but none of that matters, because the package that writer/director Rick Famuyiwa has put together is deliriously entertaining.
Malcolm is played by newcomer Shameik Moore, who is effortlessly charming and funny, and sports a haircut you wouldn’t see these day unless you’re watching old Fresh Prince episodes. He has found two likeminded misfits in Jib (Tony Revolori from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and together the three of them are able to carve out their own little corner in their high school lives, and mainly avoid trouble. That is until the day they choose the drug dealer street instead of the gang street, and Malcolm meets Dom (rapper A$ap Rocky), the two trading hip-hop facts, before Dom sends Malcolm to talk to Nakia (Zoe Kravitz, who has never looked more like her mom than she does here), who Dom likes, but has more in common with Malcolm – even if she is a little old for him. This is what ultimately sets off the bizarre, hilarious, sometimes disturbingly violent sequence of the events for the rest of the film. Moore carries the film with his charm, and Revolori and Clemons are great sidekicks who are actually fully flushed out characters themselves (I’d watch a movie where Diggy was the main character). The supporting cast makes the best of limited screen time – especially Spike Lee regular Roger Guenveur Smith, relishing her his role as the Big Bad, and his every word of dialogue.
The film is admittedly more than a little messy – it goes off onto wild tangents at times, and sidelines the plot (and some great characters) for too long while doing so. In the final few scenes of the movie, what had been a very subtle movie about identity and cultural expectations because explicit, with a monologue delivered directly to the camera (a direct lift from several Spike Lee films – it doesn’t always work when he does it either). But mainly, the film is just pure entertainment from beginning to end. It feels like the work of a young filmmaker – but Famuyiwa has been around for a while – he even made a film set in the same area in the 1990s (1999’s The Wood – which I remember liking at the time, but haven’t seen since). Dope isn’t a perfect movie – but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.