Though growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles known as The Bottoms, high schoolers Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) couldn’t be more far removed from the drug and gang culture. They get good grades, play in a punk band together, embrace ’90s hip-hop culture and Malcolm has high aspirations of attending Harvard.
At a chance invitation to a party held by local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky), things change rapidly for the three after a drug deal inside turns bad. The next day, Malcolm discovers Dom stashed the drugs from the deal inside his backpack, and when he is given instructions on what to do with the product, it puts the future he’s been hoping for in serious jeopardy.
Combining the coming-of-age traits of John Hughes and the urban commentary of the Hughes brothers sounds like an potently eclectic mix. Blending sincere ghetto survival and drug and gang culture with Judd Apatow-esque humor looks like an utter mess in the making on paper. Yet writer/director Rick Famuyiwa takes head-butting genres that even an accomplished filmmaker might struggle to piece together and what could’ve been tacky Steve Jobs product placement, and turns it into a fresh, off-kilter, slightly dark coming-of-age adventure.
Though it involves drug dealing and gangs, Dope isn’t about the violence that is often associated with both aspects, nor is it necessarily a drug comedy. Much like Tom Cruise’s Risky Business, this focuses more on the geeky high school kid with promise (though the economic circumstances of the characters are vastly different) who’s unwittingly thrust into a dangerous environment than the environment itself. From the manic pacing, sharp satire (one dealer uses a Find My iPhone app to track Malcolm ’cause that Steve Jobs is a “mother fucking genius”), and creative editing style that actually benefits the story instead of being style for style’s sake, viewers may unsurprisingly draw inspiration parallels to the earlier works of Spike Lee, specifically Do the Right Thing.
Famuyiwa’s obviously making some risky choices here (there’s a darkly funny bit during Whitaker’s opening narration involving a GameBoy kid who gets gunned down during a restaurant hold-up), but the choices pay off, despite some missteps. The film veers a bit off track with a few of its plot turns, which can often be the case for these off-kilter cross-genre types, and a third-act breaking of the fourth wall is briefly distracting. Also, not enough attention’s paid to the relationship that develops between Malcolm and Nakia, and it would’ve been a total missed opportunity if not for the fact that Moore and Zoe Kravitz have great chemistry together for the small amount of time that they’re together.
Still, for the most part, Famuyiwa ably balances the light and dark tones, and keeps things feeling alive with a plethora of off-the-wall characters from Blake Anderson’s whitey hacker, Roger Guenveur Smith‘s (a Spike Lee regular) drug-dealing Harvard alum to the three main, freshly-written adolescent characters of Malcolm, Diggy and the “14% African” Jib (Tony Revolori doing a complete 180 from his breakthrough as the loveably shy Zero in last year’s The Grand Budapest Hotel).
It’s a great cast, and the chemistry between the three leads is strong. But in the end, it’s Shameik Moore’s show. Malcolm shatters nearly every urban film character trope and stereotype. His contemporaries deride him for liking “white shit”. By that, they mean 4.0 grades, college aspirations, punk rock, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Donald Glover. He’s so geeky even the high school security guard just lets him slide on by the beeping detector and barking like mad drug-sniffing dog, even though the dog ain’t lying. And he’s probably the only kid on the face of the earth who could write a scientific college essay titled “A Research Thesis to Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day” and then namedrop astrophysicists to his disapproving guidance counselor by saying if Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote it everyone would be praising it. Moore is awkward, shy, geeky and naive, yet confident and tough, and provides Malcolm with an earnest likeability that has us rooting for him, even when he’s forced to make some not-so smart, dangerous decisions.
Dope stumbles along the way with a few uneven patches, but writer/director Rick Famuyiwa compensates for its imperfections by delivering an oftentimes sharply humorous and snappily paced coming-of-age story that cleverly draws on influences ranging from Risky Business, John Singleton and the John Hughes classics of the ’80s. The draw here, though, is Shameik Moore in a strong performance that, like Tom Cruise and Risky Business, could be and hopefully is a star-making turn for him.
I give Dope a B+ (★★★).
Review source: http://silverscreenfanatic.com/2015/06/19/dope/