Film Review – Dope
Dope can mean three things: 1) a drug, 2) something that is cool, or 3) a nerd or dork. By the end of the film, Dope uses all three of those meanings. The most apparent at the beginning is in reference to the main character, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a teen who revels in everything about 1990s hip hop culture. His hair and his clothes all scream that look that predominated the early 1990s. He reminds me of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He is not popular; he is bullied and is smart, so the term “dope” applies well to him.
The film is set in Inglewood, California in an area called “The Bottoms.” It is not the greatest area to live and being a nerd does not help his situation. He is tormented by bullies at school and avoiding gangs afterwards. Along for the ride with Malcolm are Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), fellow misunderstood teens. Diggy is a lesbian who can be mistaken for a boy and Jib is an Indian who can find the fun in all situations. In pursuit of the local hottie Nakia (Zoe Kavitz), Malcolm does some “hollering” at Nakia for drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky). Successful to an extent, Malcolm ends up at Dom’s birthday party with his friends and Nakia. However, a shooting occurs and Dom hides his stash of Molly in Malcolm’s backpack. Let the paranoia and hysteria begin as Malcolm discovers the stash and soon after finds out about those after it.
This is an entertaining and ingenious film. Starting with the narration by Forest Whitaker, the film weaves a tale of hilarity and circumstance. For the most part, it is a comedy, but it deals with some real world situations. With the narration and the trio of friends, it plays as an offbeat teen comedy using the struggles of being a young black man in a bad neighborhood. The obsession with YO! MTV Raps videotapes and a thesis on Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day” sets Malcolm apart from everyone, and he is okay with it. He is determined to get into Harvard, but not using the normal route for someone in his situation. He rebukes the idea of using his family life and the neighborhood as a ploy to get accepted.
Much like Malcolm, the casting is not what is expected. There are no big names in any of the roles. This film stands alone on the script, direction, acting, and music. Every supporting actor is pitch perfect for the role. I had a big smile on my face as Short Term 12’s Keith Stanfield appears as a bully after Malcolm’s fly shoes. Workaholics’ Blake Anderson fits the smart, college druggie who would love to use the “N word” as a term of endearment without repute and who helps the trio divulge themselves of the Molly in an ingenious way. Small roles and cameos by Rick Fox, Kimberly Elise, and model Chanel Iman round out the eclectic cast.
Dope’s music is another worthy mention. Original songs by Pharrell like “Can’t Bring Me Down” performed by Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib’s band Awreeoh (pronounced “oreo”) will be your next ear bug. That song is still stuck in my head. Hip hop classics like “Hip Hop Hooray” or the random Korn song all complete the film and the experience.
Like most circumstantial comedies, they have to get dark and leave the comedic track for a while. Malcolm’s Molly situation takes him down a dark path, one he never thought he would stoop to. It also became necessary for the film to go down this road given where the film is set. However, this is the least enjoyable part. It went from laughs to serious and arrested the comedic flow. But I get it. This is not just a teen comedy. Dope is trying to say something about the world today and the struggles of an atypical young black man in a bad neighborhood. It would have been a lost opportunity had they not gone there.
Dope is almost the perfect atypical comedy. I can see why it was a hit at Sundance and Cannes. The acting, writing, direction, and music are on point. Other than the darker minutes of the film, it is something to see when you want to laugh, but not in the same way as you would at “Spy.” Not every comedy can be seen as original, but this one can. In the press notes for this film, A$AP Rocky mentioned it was similar to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and that comparison rings true in Dope.