REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
“Dope” might best be described as an urban, coming of age film for the post-hip hop generation. The tagline for the film is, “It’s hard out here for a geek.”
As the breezily paced film opens, an omniscient narrator (Forrest Whittaker, who also served as one of the film’s producers) advises us that the word, “dope,” can have multiple meanings. These include an illegal drug; someone who is stupid; or something that is cool, the antithesis of geeky. So … which one does the film take its title from?
Malcom (Shameik Moore) is a self-described geek, who sports an anachronistic ‘90s flat top haircut. The African-American teen is struggling to survive the mean streets of The Bottoms, a particularly rough section of Inglewood, Calif. Malcolm’s father has returned to his native Nigeria and he’s being raised by a single mother (Kimberly Elise). She maintains a thankless job as a bus driver to support the two of them.
Now a high school senior, Malcolm hangs out with his two best friends, ethnically indeterminate Jib (Tony Revlori, the bellboy in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and an androgynous lesbian, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). They share a penchant for phenomena usually associated with white teenagers. This includes BMX biking; collecting Manga comic books; forming a punk rock band, which they name Oreo; and striving for academic success.
It’s not surprising that the trio is socially ostracized by their peers and subjected to constant bullying. It’s a constant battle for them to prevent their sneakers and their bikes from getting snatched away.
Malcolm’s high school counselor (Bruce Beatty) lambastes him as being arrogant to imagine that he has any chance to be accepted by Harvard. Nevertheless, despite this skepticism, Malcolm has wrangled a college entry interview with Austin Jacoby (Roger Giuenveur Smith). The latter also hails from The Bottoms, is a Harvard alum, and now runs a successful chain of check cashing outlets.
Following a chance encounter, a local drug dealer, Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky, making his screen debut), decides to exploit Malcolm as a go-between. Dom wants Malcolm to help him win over a local beauty, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). What Dom doesn’t know is that Malcolm is already crushing on Nakia.
Dom throws a birthday party for himself at a local club. When he arrives, the bouncer (Allen Maldonado) has just banned Malcolm and his friends from entering the club because they are underage. However, Dom demands that the bouncer let them. Guess who backs down rather than face Dom’s wrath?
A backroom drug deal for $100,000 of the party drug, MDMA (known by the sobriquet, “Molly”) goes bad. It escalates into a pitched gun battle. Dom stashes the drugs into Malcolm’s backpack. Now in possession of the drugs, Malcolm and his equally innocent side-kicks are plunged into a dangerous new world.
How will Malcolm and his friends deal with the situation? Will they use their smarts and pluck to turn this situation into a remunerative experience or will they become fatalities in the ongoing turf war for drugs?
Along the way, “Dope” attains a certain manic humor. The threesome meet a light-skinned African-American kid with identity issues, Jaleel (Quincy Brown) and his nymphomaniacal sister, Lily (Chanel Iman). With Dom in lock up, a pair of gun-toting criminals try to purloin the MDMA from Malcolm and his buddies. He decides to contact Will (Blake Anderson), a computer hacker/drug dealer, who he had met years ago, back in his band camp days. The techno-savvy Will concocts a scheme to use bitcoin as a way to sell the drugs online and avoid detection by law enforcement.
“Dope” is the latest film from Rick Famuyiwa. Previously, Famuyiwa wrote and directed “The Wood,” “Talk to Me,” and “Brown Sugar.” During his own adolescence, Famuyiwa moved with his family from their native Nigeria to Inglewood. Like his other films, “Dope” explores the issues of racial identity, social alienation, and the intrinsic value of friendship. The film is seemingly informed by Famuyiwa’s own experiences as a teen pariah.
Famuyiwa provides colorful, three dimensional characters. He draws winning performances from each member of the central core of three adolescent characters. This is augmented by notably effective supporting work by Zoë Kravitz, Quincy Brown, Chanel Iman, Blake Anderson, and Roger Giuenveur Smith. Even Famuyiwa’s tertiary characters are well-drawn and well-acted by the likes of Bruce Beatty, De’Aaundre Bonds (as a no-nonsense school security guard) and Tyga (as the operator of a manufacturing plant for knock off goods).
The film is enhanced by Rachel Morrison’s cinematography; Lee Haugen’s clever editing, replete with freeze frames and split screens; Pharrell Williams’ original tunes; Germaine Franco’s score; Scott Falconer’s production designs; and Patrick Milani’s costume designs. These elements provide a propitious synergy with the text of the film.
“Dope” made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it elicited a strongly favorable response. It then closed the Director’s Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival, where it elicited an enthusiastic reaction.
Do yourself a favor and make sure that you don’t miss the film’s epilogue. Then, stick around for a post-epilogue, in which Shameik Moore puts on quite a display of terpsichorean skill.
“Dope” is a dope film in the best sense of the word.
*** 1/2 R (for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence-all involving teens) 115 minutes. Open Road Films.
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.