Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, 2015)
American Graffiti meets Risky Business meets Boyz n the Hood meets Friday. That’s all I have to say. And then some. Director Rick Famuyiwa (Our Family Wedding) has fashioned a highly entertaining and extremely intelligent comedy about self-professed high-school geeks in the rough gang-infested neighborhood of Inglewood, California, who suddenly find themselves unwittingly involved in the very drugs and crime they have managed to avoid so successfully until their senior year. To use one of the definitions of the movie’s title that flashes on the opening title card, Dope is dope.
Stylishly shot and edited, this movie moves along so briskly that its occasional narrative nonsense matters not. This is the story of Malcolm, Jib and Diggy, best friends who, every day, not only navigate the usual minefields of high school, but also the very real dangers of the world outside. Played, in order, by Shameik Moore (The Watsons Go to Birmingham), Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Kiersey Clemons (“Transparent“), these kids are vibrant three-dimensional characters in a world we normally see portrayed as an urban-nightmare backdrop to larger stories about Los Angeles (such as Training Day). It’s a joy to watch the three young actors at work; they are at ease with each other, suggesting long friendships forged through common interests and much time spent together.
They’re also geeks, which makes them greater misfits in Inglewood than they would be in, say a John Hughes film. The stakes are higher. People actually get shot where they live. Famuyiwa, who grew up in Inglewood, himself, shows us the danger, right away, even if he plays it for comedy. So anything can happen. To make them even greater targets, Malcolm, Jib and Diggy are obsessed with 1990s-era hip-hop. They’re out of fashion, and so not cool. But they do have a shot at going to college, and a good one: as the film begins, Malcolm is applying to Harvard. Though his college guidance counselor thinks he’s arrogant, we sense it is not an unreasonable dream, for him.
But then Malcolm takes a fancy to the on-again-off-again girlfriend of a local drug dealer, gets himself invited to a club party, and suddenly finds himself in possession of a bag of drugs (Molly) and a gun. Big whoops. At first, he and his friends just want to get rid of the stuff, but the ownership of said property is in dispute, and so begins a crazy odyssey across the city that lands them in the home of a local businessman – born in Inglewood, but now living in a mansion – who, instead of helping them, tells them to move the product and just give him the money. And so our geeks have to become what they’ve never wanted to be: drug dealers. Except that they know a thing or two about the dark web and Tor browsers, so maybe – just maybe – they’ll get away with it. Without, you know, dying.
In spite of the few times when the movie’s blend of action thrills and comedy falls just shy of the mark, I loved it. It’s witty and smart, with fast-paced dialogue covering topics from the legacy of Ice Cube to Obama’s use of drones to the propriety of hip white people saying the n-word to, of course (this is a teen movie, after all), sex. This is a film about people of color – who just happen to live in a dangerous neighborhood – with the same aspirations as everyone else. I know. Surprising. It’s also terrific fun. With a strong supporting cast that includes Zoë Kravitz (Mad Max: Fury Road), Rakim Mayers (aka rapper A$AP Rocky), model Chanel Iman, Comedy Central’s Blake Anderson (“Workaholics“) and veteran actor Roger Guenveur Smith (American Gangster), Dope is filled with quirky and original people who give its narrative true depth. Though the ending may feel a bit too polemical, overall this is a fresh and lively piece of filmmaking, and I highly recommend.