Pulsing with energy and gleefully flouting the established rules of black coming-of-age stories, Dope charts its own path by playing with convention and giving voice to a burgeoning new generation. The surface similarities are there: like Boyz n the Hood (released almost 25 years ago), Dope is a tale of youths growing up on the mean streets of L.A. (South Central and Inglewood respectively). And while they both feature characters that are struggling to rise above their circumstances who are reluctantly drawn into gang violence, Dope is far more hopeful (and funny), signalling that while things still need to get better, there’s a strong current of optimism out there.
Like Boyz, Dope is also clearly a product of its time and comes off almost painfully current with its references to bitcoins, molly and viral videos. This movie could either look really dated in a few years or serve as a detailed snapshot of one moment in time. How ironic then that the main characters are obsessed with 90s hip-hop, high-top fades, Super Nintendo and old VHS copies of Yo! MTV Raps. Like many social outcasts, they’re nostalgic for a bygone era and take solace in their outsider status.
Dope centres on Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a shy and intelligent teen being raised by his hardworking mom after his dad went back to Nigeria. He’s teased and ridiculed at his school, labelled as a geek who’s into “white people shit” like skateboarding, BMX bikes and academics. Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel) are his best mates, and together they get through the days playing in a punk band (cheekily named The Oreos) and trying not to get their bikes or shoes stolen by gangbangers on the corner.
Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa brings many autobiographical elements of his own life to screen here, but also imbues Dope with a freshness and buoyancy that grants it ample life. Malcolm actually feels like a real teen, speaking in halting sentences but with a fully formed personality under the surface. The movie’s matter-of-fact treatment of Diggy’s sexuality is refreshing, and Jib represents that loudmouth friend that everyone has (if you disagree then this might be you). They’re fiercely loyal to one another and their bullshit sessions come off as genuine.
In fact, the whole movie has a real hangout vibe that feels a little formless at times but accurately captures the adolescent experience. There’s the unattainable and attractive neighbour Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), mounting pressure to get into a good college, evading bullies at school, endless lazy afternoons and rowdy parties. The only difference here is that while teenage problems can often feel like life and death stakes even when they aren’t, Malcolm actually gets into mortal danger after inadvertandly making off with three bricks of Molly (aka the drug MDMA) from the local dealer Dom (rapper A$ap Rocky).
That’s the crux upon which the plot hinges, with much of the film then devoted to Malcolm, Diggy and Jib’s misadventures trying to sell the drugs before Dom or his backers catch up to the trio. You’d think that this would lend some urgency to the movie, but it continues on in much the same vein even as the danger grows and their drug business takes off. The good news is that the episodic nature of the movie allows for lots of colourful characters like hacktivist Will (Workaholic’s Blake Anderson, bringing a druggy charm) and rich-kid Jaleel (who changes patois as needed in order to blend in) to come in and steal a few scenes.
And besides being fun and refreshing, there’s some modern philosophical musings snuck in as well. Street-level dealers debate the morality of drone warfare, thugs effectively utilize iPhone tracking capabilities against the leads, and bitcoins are used as a consequence-free currency to trade drugs online in a movie that is insightful and aware of how technology is quickly changes our lives. It also (somewhat paradoxically but enjoyably) features a killer soundtrack of both old school hip hop (from Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and more) and new tracks like the music created by Pharrell for Malcolm’s band.
Dope is also mostly relevant (though overlong), with much of that timeliness stemming from the character’s fierce refusal to be labelled or pigeon-holed into what their parents, teachers or society might expect from them. It wants to harness a punk sensibility but feels more like a pop song. It’s a little shaggy at times, but its mix of comedy and drama effectively builds to a searing ending that serves as a defiant statement of purpose and an indictment of America’s bigotry. Forward-thinking and successfully subverting many of the tropes that defined its predecessors, Dope is, well, dope.
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Runtime: 103 minutes