Originally published on January 25, 2015
Three geeky high school friends inexplicably get pulled into a life-or-death situation in the hugely entertaining film, Dope. The film takes the hood formula popularized twenty years ago and triumphantly turns it on its collective ear in this smart, witty and hilarious coming-of-age story.
Malcolm (newcomer Shameik Moore) and his best friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are living the embodiment of the popular Ice Cube song, How to Survive in South Central. Lovers of 90’s hip-hop culture and a plethora of interests laughably described as “White Shit,” the threesome spend most of their days trying to avoid getting beat down or playing in their garage band, Oreo.
Harboring dreams of escaping their dreary existence living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in South Central called The Bottom, Malcolm aspires to become a Harvard man, despite the lack of guidance that he gets from his school counselor. Challenging Malcolm by calling him arrogant and asking him, “who does he think he is,” the counselor almost scolds him for thinking that he has a bright future.
After getting jacked for his tennis shoes, he has an unlikely encounter with a neighborhood drug dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky) who educates him on the golden age of rap and asks him for a favor. He encourages Malcolm to be his Cyrano de Bergerac for a beautiful neighborhood girl, Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). Instead of being interested in the “complicated” Dom, she takes an immediate interest in the quiet, yet brainy Malcolm, setting up a humorous chain of events.
Dom’s birthday party celebration becomes the flash point for a drug deal gone bad, an unexpected change of possession of product and a opportunity to spend time with the lovely Nakia under duress. Soon, Malcolm and his friends are embroiled in an elaborate scheme that pits two groups against each other to retrieve a book-bag stash of missing dope. To say hilarity ensues would be a MAJOR understatement.
After Malcolm tries to make things right, he suddenly encounters a major stumbling block that he forces him to use his high IQ and technical savvy to pull him out of a tight jam, ala Risky Business.
Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s winning script is reminiscent in tone to his earlier hit, The Wood. Once again, he has three films, with the story told through a main character and there is always the attainable prize – a beautiful girl. Channeling Sean Nelson and Malinda Williams is Moore and Kravitz, who are absolutely darling together. Their interplay and chemistry works so well, I would love to see a story just of THEIR relationship. Adept at finding and developing fresh new talent, Famuyiwa gets amazing transparent solid supporting performances from Roger Guenveur Smith, Rocky, Clemons and the ever dependable Keith Stansfield.
After seeing so many heavy, dark dramas in South Central, Famuyiwa wisely uses humor to explore the harsh realities of the characters but also looks at the absurd notions of how young Black men are perceived. Weaving in references from films and spotlighting and commenting on social media and contemporary culture, Famuyiwa pushes his story foward with Malcolm as his mouthpiece to speak his truths. Filling in the gaps for Malcom is narrator, Forest Whitaker, who does an amazing job, albeit in a limited role.
Fresh off the success of his work in the Grand Budapest Hotel, Revolori and Clemons are outstanding as fellow geeky travelers on Malcolm’s journey who aid him all of the film’s key moments, sometimes with awful consequences. Both John Singleton and The Hughes Brothers garned major acclaim twenty years ago for their searing examinations of life in the hoods of South Central with both Boyz ‘N the Hood and Menace II Society. Famuyiwa has just completed the second film of his personal South Central trilogy (from my lips to God’s ears) and has managed in both cases to make intelligent, accessible stories that are long on hope and optimism and less on survival. In the midst of a major bidding war, he may have created the best film of the Sundance Film Festival. For my money, THAT is Dope!!!