Mark Reviews Movies

Dope

DOPE

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rick Famuyiwa

Cast: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Chanel Iman, Tyga, Blake Anderson, Zoë Kravitz, A$ap Rocky

MPAA Rating: R (for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence - all involving teens)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 6/19/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 18, 2015

Dope is interesting to observe as a movie that takes a relatively simple idea and overburdens it with a few too many plot points, characters, and/or thematic concerns. The core concept, which follows a young man who seems entirely unlikely to participate in an illegal narcotics ring as he does just that, is intriguing, and the movie's central character, anchored by a really fine performance from the lead actor, becomes a fascinating collection of paradoxes. The movie itself exists in something of a moral vacuum, in which violence and other illegal activities are simply a necessary part of life. The movie works, really, until it doesn't, and even then, we still admire some of the sentiments writer/director Rick Famuyiwa expresses within the stumbling narrative.

The place is an area in the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles called "the Bottoms." It's an impoverished neighborhood, filled with warring gangs, drug dealers on the corners, and metal detectors and a drug-sniffing dog at the entrance of the local high school. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is the first person to point out and resent that his life story is a cliché: a young, black man who is the son of a single, working mother (Kimberly Elise) and an absentee father growing up in a location from which escape seems improbable—if not impossible.

Malcolm has rebelled by becoming a geek. He loves hip hop from the 1990s, dresses in the style of the time, and maintains a flattop haircut. His interests are what his classmates and other folks in the neighborhood dub as "white shit"—skateboarding, a certain comedian, getting good grades, and an interest in technology. He even plays guitar and sings in a punk rock band with his best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a young woman who dresses like a guy and enjoys the romantic company of other women, and Jib (Tony Revolori), another fellow geek.

The kid shows promise. Malcom has plans to attend Harvard in the fall, although his guidance counselor (Bruce Beatty) thinks his personal essay for the university's application form shows more than a bit of arrogance. Since he's loathe to write about his stereotypical life, Malcolm instead writes a thoughtful analysis of which specific date was Ice Cube's "good day."

Stuff like that makes Malcolm an easy target for the bullies in school and the neighborhood, who especially like to steal his retro sneakers. At least he hasn't been shot and/or killed, like the kid who was so distracted by a portable video game that he failed to notice the fast food restaurant he was in was being robbed. Such events are so commonplace that Malcolm thinks the tragedy is that poor kid was killed just as he was on the verge of beating the game.

Malcolm is fascinating, and so too is the way Famuyiwa gives us a frenetic rush of information with the help of a narrator (voice of Forest Whitaker), visual cues, and even a brief musical interlude. It may be a rush of details, but it's not rushed in dolling them out to us.

The screenplay takes its time in establishing Malcolm, his place among his friend, and his position outside the social sphere of the rest of the neighborhood. We get the gist of his life and the everyday struggles he faces, but more importantly, we get his attitude about the whole thing, which is one of tired defiance on the cusp of apathy. Moore is quite good here, communicating that weariness and complementing it with an easy, natural charm that tells us Malcolm still has a resilient spark of fight left in him.

The plot becomes a little convoluted. Basically, Malcolm and his friends end up at a local drug dealer's (A$ap Rocky) birthday party after being invited by Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), with whom Malcolm is smitten. There's a robbery attempt, and Malcolm winds up in possession of a backpack full of ecstasy. A lot of people want the drugs, including a rival dealer (Amin Joseph) and a local businessman (Roger Guenveur Smith) who happens to be the Harvard alumnus with whom Malcolm is supposed to interview.

Almost every concern in the first part of the movie (such as the dealer who has a bad birthday and Nakia) ends up forgotten once the drugs come into play. The story starts to approach something closer to a comedy of errors, as Malcolm tries to hide the drugs in school and away from a random police search, almost loses his virginity to the businessman's daughter (Chanel Iman) who has ulterior motives involving Malcolm's backpack, finds himself blackmailed by the man who holds his college future in his hands, and enlists the help of a stoned, white hacker (Blake Anderson), who doesn't understand why he can't use a certain racial epithet in even a friendly context, to sell the drugs online.

It's funny in a slightly warped sort of way, but the movie loses its path as it builds toward an assortment of resolutions. The lost subplots and characters return well after we've forgotten them, and Famuyiwa attempts to force a lot of weight on the movie's final lesson. Even so, it is challenging in a way that forces us to consider seemingly wrong actions in the context of necessity. In its broadly comic aspirations, though, Dope doesn't earn what it ultimately seeks.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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