The easiest way to describe Dope, this week’s other direct-from-Sundance indie release, is to describe its main character. Malcolm (Shamiek Moore) is a straight-A student in a crime-ridden neighborhood of Inglewood, California. He’s a fan of old school hip-hop and 90s nostalgia kitsch, while also leading a loosely-defined punk band with his two best friends, whose interests mirror his own. Malcolm’s life and pursuits are a strange hodgepodge of elements that all blend together to form a singularly complicated individual. By extension, to put it simply, Dope is kind of a mess. It’s an enormously entertaining mess with some serious questions on its mind, but a mess all the same.
As a high school senior, Malcolm’s dream is to attend Harvard, but his guidance counselor doesn’t think his entrance essay (“A Research Thesis To Discover Ice Cube’s Good Day”) says much about Malcolm as a person. He also tries to temper Malcolm’s expectation of getting into a good college at all, purely based on where, and who, he is. Undeterred, Malcolm and his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori) keep on doing their thing: Collecting hip-hop records, dodging bullies, and generally keeping a low profile in a neighborhood that has no place for three geeks.
This situation changes when local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) invites Malcolm and his friends to a birthday party, with the promise that Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), the girl Malcolm has been fawning over, will be there. After some armed thugs break up the party looking for Dom’s stash, Malcolm finds himself with a backpack full of molly. Malcolm, Diggy and Jib spend the next day racing around town, ducking rival dealers, and looking for a way to get rid of the drugs. After realizing the gravity of their situation, they decide get rid of it themselves by selling it online. Hey, when life plants lemons on you…
Dope cribs its style from early Spike Lee and Scott Pilgrim in equal measure. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa mashes up split-screens and stylish compositions with onscreen text messages, snapchat collages and other digital trickery to match the world his characters inhabit. Because of this, the film’s visual palette occasionally feels cluttered, and the staccato pacing causes some portions to stretch on forever until a quick montage comes along to perk things back up. The soundtrack features classic and current hip-hop tracks, as well as a handful of tunes performed by Malcolm’s band, Awreeoh. These help keep the film moving through even its dullest moments. If Awreeoh’s sound seems a little too perfectly crafted for a high school faux-punk group, thank executive producer Pharrell Williams for that.
For as energetic and winning as Dope often is, though, it’s also at times maddeningly contrived. The opening half is by far the best, blending a slice-of-life high school comedy with a bit of gangland drama. But then the film takes a turn, and when we discover the impetus for Malcolm to start selling drugs himself, it nearly derails the entire story. Malcolm learns, as many viewers are aware, that social institutions are rigged against kids like himself, and that maybe he should view the drugs as an opportunity. Roger Guenveur Smith lays out this exposition like The Architect from The Matrix, framing what turns out to be a ludicrous plot contrivance in a context that Malcolm would likely understand. This seems intentional on Famuyiwa’s part. Malcolm’s obsession with 90s pop culture, hip-hop and otherwise, is certainly broad enough to include crap like the Matrix sequels. (Granted, that doesn’t excuse what an asinine contrivance it is.)
The final act features Workaholics’ Blake Anderson helping Malcolm learn the ins and outs of non-fiat currency and deep-web drug trafficking. At this point, Dope already has a complicated agenda, and throwing two seasons worth of Breaking Bad into the home stretch seems like a bridge too far. It’s important to show Malcolm using the tools available to him to find a way out of a dire situation, but it’s all done so haphazardly that we can’t be sure whether Malcolm has truly learned something inspiring here, or if he’s just learned how to game the system. The way this film wraps itself up feels too easily won.
Hodgepodge style and loony plot machinations aside, I’m still going to recommend this film, purely for its willingness to traverse some complicated issues. The intrinsic value of education; the lie of upward mobility, the benefits and pitfalls of nostalgia; the blurring line between black culture and “Shit White People Like”. While Dope may not always have the answers for, or in some cases even attempt to answer, these issues, they’re still very much on the film’s mind. That these issues coexist at all in a film as buoyant and energetic as this makes Dope a win in my book.Liked This? Share It!