Welcome to this decade's latest version of a 'nerds on top' comedy.
August 24, 2015
When a film is called Dope, you really hope that it is. Telling a hip hop-infused high school tale complete with a '90s-leaning soundtrack to match, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa's movie comes close — and when it's not quite hitting the titular mark, it is having a rather good time trying to.
Malcom (Shameik Moore) acts as the feature's guide through his teenage antics, geek-style. He's from a poor, crime-filled part of Los Angeles, and he's a straight-A student in a school where being so isn't cool, but he always has best pals Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) for company. Their movement up the social ladder comes on account of a drug dealer (A$AP Rocky), who demands that Malcolm passes on a message to a neighbourhood girl, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). Attraction springs, and so do adventures of the drugs, delinquency and coming-of-age variety.
Welcome to this decade's latest version of a 'nerds on top' comedy, as filtered through the pop culture ephemera of the past 30 years. The formula of '80s teen movies, the sounds and clothing of the '90s, and the style and interconnectivity of '00s efforts combine in a film that not only relishes each element but obviously and overtly adores stringing them all together. Indeed, Dope screams enthusiasm, be it for its episodic storyline or for its gleeful mix of genres. Laughs abound, yet so does a caper, a heist and ample race-relations drama, as well as nostalgia.
In fact, there's more to Dope than amalgamating its influences: there's also both cultural specificity and ambiguity. Famuyiwa creates a movie that attempts to express both a realistic and exaggerated version of what living in crime-ridden Inglewood as the Harvard-aspiring son of single mother is really like; realistic in showing the many shades of experiences evident, and exaggerated in heightening the complexities, contradictions and differences between seemingly typical inhabitants to stress the film's point about diversity. Malcolm may seem straight outta the Bottoms, but he also likes BMX riding and playing in a punk band — or as he puts it, "white stuff". His friends prove just as multifaceted and stereotype-defying, with Jib (aka The Grand Budapest Hotel's lobby boy) refusing to identify his ethnicity, and Diggy celebrating her sexual and aesthetic androgyny.
Accordingly, Dope aims high with its statement, and skews fun in its packaging. Alas, the latter sometimes lessens the former, as enjoyable as the movie proves. Chaotic is the nice way to put it; however, messy and cartoonish also fit, even though the film is always sleek, fast-paced and energetic. It's an offering where the vibe reigns, and the overall sharpness and smartness of its message and dialogue often gets swept up in it.