Scott F. Evans
Dope might just have one of the most appropriate titles in cinema history. Similar to narcotics, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s latest offering gives you an immediate high as it seems to present us with a new breed of young African-American protagonists. You think that Dope just might paint an altogether different picture of life in Inglewood, California. Maybe it’s a slice of life meets coming-of-age flick set to a dope 90’s hip hop soundtrack. Maybe Dope just describes something fresh, fun and affirming. In this state of euphoria, you believe that Famuyiwa’s film is showing you something unique. Everything has a soft, mellow sheen to it.
But then the high wears off and the cracks start showing.
On the upside, Famuyiwa is a good writer. His dialogue is nimble and flows naturally from his actors mouths. It’s smart without being condescending. It’s plain, but never simple. Its humor sometimes relies too heavily on crassness but that could be attributed to the character’s youth and socio-economic background. The characters he draws in the film are a little troubling but we’ll get to that shortly. The direction is solid if a little gimmicky at times, feeling like the forty-something director’s trying too hard to appeal to the post-millenials the film centers around. The flourishes don’t distract, but also feel completely superfluous. Other than a couple off performances, he gets mostly solid work from his cast. Famuyiwa and cinematographer Rachel Morrison shoot Inglewood beautifully with the picture being appropriately sun drenched and colorful. The music is, well, dope. The soundtrack is chock full of great head-nodders from what is arguably the last significant era of Hip Hop.
But then the high wears off.
Shamiek Moore stars as the film’s lead, Malcolm. Moore’s got charisma, eliciting a great performance from a character rife with contradictions. Kiersey Clemons stars as Diggy and Tony Revolori as Jib, Malcom’s best and seemingly only friends. Clemons and Revolori do solid work with these thinly sketched characters. All three are members of a garage band called Awreeoh. And other than Diggy being a lesbian, Jib an East Indian, and both loyal to Malcolm, there’s not much more to these two. They’re all supposed to be these genius oddballs, obsessed with fashion and music twenty years out of date, and hobbies that only white people are usually interested in. But it’s all surface, with none of it having any significance.
These feel like random traits given to them by a writer disinterested in actually exploring what it means to be different in a society that rewards uniformity.
We’re presented with two main groups in this film, Malcolm and his geeks and a motley assortment of thugs and gangsters. Rapper A$ap Rocky plays Dom, a neighborhood drug dealer and gang leader. He’s passable, but lightweight in the role, feeling more like a poser than a real threat. Famuyiwa wisely keeps his screen time to a minimum. Zoe Kravitz, channeling her mother Lisa Bonet in this performance, is horribly miscast as Nakia. Kravitz and her spacey/detached surfer girl delivery, makes the least convincing hood chick in Black cinema history. She’s not a bad actor, just laughably wrong in this part. Roger Guenveur Smith gives an extended cameo as Austin Jacoby. But like Kravitz, he’s all wrong for the part. He gives an unsure performance, like he wasn’t completely clear on his character’s motivation. And to add final insult to injury, Kimberly Elise shows up and is given nothing to do in the thankless role of Malcolm’s mother Lisa.
I really came down off Dope’s already meager high when Blake Anderson arrived as Malcolm’s hacker friend Will. Even with this film’s faux outsiders and cartoonish gangsters, Will feels totally out of place, like he just wandered in off the set of a stoner comedy masquerading as a techno thriller. Anderson’s fine in the role, but the truth is it doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting. Will’s true purpose seems to be Dope’s token white character. This would be fine, if his main shtick wasn’t confusion about why he’s not allowed to use the “N-word” around Malcolm and company.
Famuyiwa’s black characters drop “N-bombs” throughout the film (so much so that it feels forced). These kids are supposed to be different from the other hood residents; progressive, smarter and maybe even more enlightened. So why do they spew the word as frequently as the other characters, whom the film paints as regressive and ignorant? If Famuyiwa was really interested in exploring this issue, there would be some justification for this plotline. But he’s not. He gives us a brief comic moment and then it’s blown away, dissipating like smoke. It’s a little funny, but it’s really used to avoid a complicated subject that probably never should have been brought up in the first place.
Dope’s main problem is that Famuyiwa overreaches. He wants the film to be too many things. At first it’s a cute chocolate-dipped coming of age film, about a left-of-center high school kid with Ivy League dreams. This story flourishes in the first half, full of charm and smart, brisk pacing. Then it takes a turn when Famuyiwa shoehorns a convoluted crime element into the plot, effectively slamming the brakes on a really nice ride. While I feel that gangs and drugs are sometimes an inescapable part of life in certain communities, the plot twist feels inorganic and unnecessary.
Despite all of that, I recommend giving Dope a theatrical look. I had some fairly serious issues with it, but this little film has a lot of heart. In a summer filled with tired sequels and frivolous reboots, Dope is a fresh, if not altogether satisfying toke.