Ok, I have to admit up front where I'm coming from with this review. I'm a white male in my late 20s from Mobile, Alabama. I grew up a bit above poor with few to no friends due to my awkwardness and obsession with film and things all around that are now considered #nerdy (the hashtag shows how trendy it's become). I wouldn't seem to be the target demographic for the new film Dope, which is about a black teenager and his friends that are obsessed with 90s hip hop culture getting mixed up with a large amount of Molly (we just called that shit ecstasy back in my day!). The trailers playing before the film also didn't really seem to be aimed at me, consisting of Straight Outta Compton (which looks great) and dumb broad comedies like the new Vacation reboot (which does not). But this film was actually a perfect fit for me and I was one of only 6 people at the Thursday night show (which is a damn shame). I actually connected on a much deeper level to this film than anything I've seen in quite a while. Much like director Rick Famuyiwa's 1999 film The Wood, the coming of age tale of awkward, yet passionate teenagers spoke to me in a way that transcends where I grew up or what color my skin is. Famuyiwa has a knack for making films about a specific time and place that still find ways of being universal.
Dope takes place in Inglewood, in a low rung neighborhood called The Bottoms. Malcolm (an excellent Shameik Moore) and his two friends/band mates Diggy and Jib (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori) are geeks, ostracized in their rough neighborhood for their style and attitudes. After getting caught up in the same circles as local drug dealer Dom (a surprisingly good A$ap Rocky), they wind up with a backpack full of drugs that multiple parties want. These three kids end up having to sell the drugs using their wits in order to save their lives, while trying not to lose themselves. Toss in a love story with local girl Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) and a cast of crazy supporting characters, and you have a really funny and effective story. The relevant themes and throwback style meld into a unique take on believing in and trying to better yourself as you make your way to adulthood. Malcolm's final monologue at the end of the film packs a strong emotional punch that perfectly wraps everything up.
This film has the kinetic energy and fun of a first time filmmaker, but with the tight construction and pacing of an old pro. It's part John Hughes, part House Party, and part Superbad, but with an intelligence and honesty the teen film genre has been lacking for a long time. The characters feel real, with motivations and multiple sides, instead of broad caricatures. Even the “bad” or antagonistic characters are believable in where they're coming from and aren't just cartoonishly evil people. The strongest aspect of Dope is the three leads, who have a casualness and camaraderie between them that sells their friendship and drives the film. It's also nice that these kinds of characters are being represented in a movie. They might be geeks to the world around them, but they aren't the bumbling stereotypes we usually see and they're still really cool in their own way, finally getting a chance to prove it to everyone else. We've come a long way from Lewis Skolnick and Steve Urkel.
The only aspect of the film that works against it is the romance between Malcolm and Nakia. I understand why it's there, it IS a standard trope of teen films, but in a movie that refreshes and subverts so often in a tired genre, this is the one thing that felt unnecessary. Both the 2nd act conflict and the 3rd act reconciliation between the characters feels forced and unearned. I also feel that trying to make the film so relevant to the culture in 2015 might end up dating it more than it should. Including stuff like Bitcoin (which I might actually understand now, thanks movie!), Molly, and Worldstar might work against it in the future when/if these things become irrelevant (try to watch any movie involving computer technology from the 90s without laughing). But that's really a small complaint and at least Dope is trying to appeal to and show what current youth culture is without just clumsily referring to Facebook or Twitter, like most other films do.
Despite those few minor things, Dope is indeed dope and it has a wonderful soundtrack that I will be playing regularly for the foreseeable future (including 4 new Pharrell songs under the name Awreeoh, the kid's band in the movie). It's a refreshing change of pace from all the superheroes and dinosaurs stomping around the summer box office. I really hope this becomes a sleeper hit and everyone takes a chance on it during their trips out to the theater this summer (It's a really good original movie, not based off of an existing property? I didn't think they did that anymore!). Rick Famuyiwa has made another hilarious and heartfelt movie about growing up (seriously, watch The Wood if you haven't seen it) and has given some fantastic young actors a chance to show their chops. I plan on seeing this one again very soon and I hope you'll seek it out as well. Don't be a dope.
8 out of 10 dubbed Yo! MTV Raps tapes