"Dope" has a few meanings. The opening credits of Rick Famuyiwa's Sundance Film Festival hit provide three different definitions of the word.
Similarly, much of the appeal of Dope is that it doesn't fit neatly into any particular category. It can be a gritty crime drama, a clever, if ribald comedy and a sobering look at dealing with teenage woes in an environment that's hostile to any soul who inhabits it.
87 Cast: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, A$ap Rocky, Blake Anderson, Chanel Iman, Zoe Kravitz, Kimberly Elise, Roger Guenveur Smith
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Rating: R, for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity and some violence, all involving teens
Running time: 115 minutes
In just about any high school in America, you'd be likely to find the '90s-worshipping Malcolm (Shameik Moore), his pal Jib (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel) and their lesbian gal pal Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). The three are bright misfits who can play some convincing P-funk tunes and are all eyeing Ivy League schools.
Because they all hail from South Central Los Angeles, they don't have much time to be amused by how attempting to "pray the gay away" from Diggy is so counterproductive. Church is a great place to meet girls.
Actually, these three need all the prayers they can get.
In addition to facing bullies who want cash or high-dollar sneakers, Malcolm and his pals have to contend with a violent narcotics trade that makes simply getting home from school a task comparable to invading Normandy.
The three do their best to avoid dealers like Dom (Rakim Mayers, better known as rapper A$ap Rocky), but when Malcolm runs out of exit strategies he winds up unknowingly carrying a backpack with a pistol and several pounds of a potent designer drug.
Before the amiable Malcolm can even process what has happened, he winds up having to dodge the cops, rival gangs and everyone else who has made his life miserable. He also has to meet with an alumnus from his high school (Roger Guenveur Smith, Do the Right Thing) who might be able to help him get into Harvard.
Just as Malcolm has to work and think hard to get through his complicated situation, Famuyiwa, who also gave us The Wood and Brown Sugar, expects viewers to pay attention and keep track of little clues that explain why certain things are amiss in South Central. For example, because of Malcolm's taste in music and clothes, it's tempting to think that Dope is set during the era when he was born. It isn't until the word "Bitcoin" pops up that we realize he's longing for a 1990s that never really existed.
Similarly, Famuyiwa's South Central is loaded with fascinating characters who reveal themselves to be different from what they seem. Much of the pleasure and the challenge of Dope is that it forces viewers with Malcolm to determine who is friend or foe. It's also intriguing to find out if Malcolm can or even should retain his innocence. If he's too naive, he'll die for sure, but is Dom's doomed path worth following, either?
Curiously, Jib and Diggy are somewhat fuzzy for leading characters. As enjoyable as Dope can be, there doesn't seem to be that much chemistry with three characters who are supposed to be best friends.
On the other hand, Famuyiwa's decision to fill the soundtrack with vintage hip-hop makes Dope distinctive. It's also a treat to hear The Digital Underground again, even if you've forgotten them after all of this time.
MovieStyle on 06/19/2015