Despite the well-worn territory and jumbled narrative, Dope is proof positive that Hollywood needs diversity and needs it NOW. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa does little to change the high school coming-of-age tale, yet the simple fact that he’s taken it out of white, suburban America brings a fresh perspective and unique aspect to his unconventional comedy. Featuring what will certainly become an all-star cast, Dope exchanges the typical middle-class white leads for a trio of diverse, Inglewood teens — resulting in a charming and hilarious film.
Malcolm (a spectacular turn from relative newcomer Shameik Moore) along with his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are geeks. Obsessed with 90’s hip hop culture, skateboarding and their punk band, the group’s penchant for good grades and thrift-shop clothes make them a target for bullying at their “underfunded” public school. A chance encounter with corner drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky a.k.a Rakim Mayers) leaves Malcolm in possession of several bags of dope (MDMA) and in jeopardy of losing his chance to get into Harvard. Confronted with the choice to either sell the drugs or face unnamed consequences (death is made very clear), the geeks must use their nefarious connections and adept intellects to return their lives to normalcy (while connecting several unusual plot points along the way).
Famuyiwa draws influence from pop culture with particular regard to F. Gary Gray’s Friday and John Hughes’ work from the mid to late 1980s (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Weird Science come to mind). With a jumpy and often frenetic pace, and a tone that is impossible to pin down, Dope blends the moviemaking styles of the past with the hectic social media-infused lives of our present. Famuyiwa purposefully cuts a pivotal party scene, replacing the typical action shots with a horizontal shot of Malcolm passed out in bed. With only a foggy recollection of the previous night’s events, Malcolm, like those of us who have trouble remembering hazy nights of drinking, relives the party on full blast through videos and pictures (fictionalized versions of Instagram and Snapchat) on his phone. By robbing both his character and audience of the experience, the director conveys the sense of an alcohol-fueled memory lapse and casts the outrageous situation in a much more realistic light.
At its most basic level, Dope is hardly more than a re-hashed story of kids going to extreme lengths for popularity and the “girl of their dreams,” yet it adeptly points out, with some help from narrator Forest Whitaker, that the stakes are monumental solely because of the location. As Malcolm explains why being a geek in his neighborhood is dangerous (you can get killed), we realize that more is on the line than a football scholarship or the loss of someone’s virginity; these kids are fighting to rise above their circumstances in order to survive. Bits of cleverness are injected throughout the movie to help differentiate Dope from its vast sea of peers: Famuyiwa and cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s neon-colored aesthetic and visual style, Lee Haugen’s abrupt, choppy editing in perfect conjunction with the disjointed script, and snappy yet natural dialogue that lends each character a pragmatism that is often neglected by the genre.
Having been picked up by distributor Open Road Films after its Sundance debut, Dope could afford to purchase a more prolific soundtrack (listen here on Spotify). Blending seamlessly with both Famuyiwa’s visual style and the character’s cultural leanings, songs from Naughty By Nature, Digital Underground and Nas are the perfect backdrop to this slick, madcap comedy.
The world certainly doesn’t need another coming-of-age movie, but Dope is evidence that stories told by and about non-whites can add an undeniable new dimension to old stories. In a world where studios are scrambling to remake and reboot franchises with reckless abandon (to varying degrees of financial and critical success), perhaps they should look to minority/female directors, writers and actors to provide a truly fresh angle on our tired, overused stories.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.