Several critics have said that director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is a bit of a mess. They’re right, of course.
Dope is one of those scattered movies that fills its 115-minute running time to the bursting point, but Famuyiwa — who also wrote the script — may have an excuse. He’s trying to capture the raggedy spirit of ’90s hip-hop culture as reflected in the life of a high school senior who lives in the hardscrabble Bottoms Neighborhood of Inglewood, California.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Famuyiwa builds his movie around Malcolm (an appealing Shameik Moore), a young man who’s obsessed with ’90s Hip-Hop and who treats his expansive knowledge of the period with exacting discipline.
A smart kid whose main aspiration is to get into Harvard, Malcolm is no idle dreamer. He has the right kind of grades and off-the-charts SAT scores.
Still, the question of whether Malcolm can make it out of his neighborhood looms over the movie.
Malcolm has only two friends: Jib (Tony Revolori), a Latino kid; and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a lesbian who’s sometimes mistaken for a boy.
Together, these characters form a trio of outliers in a world that’s not big on encouragement. Malcolm’s high-school adviser, for example, thinks Harvard aspirations are a product of Malcolm’s delusions.
That’s not how Malcolm sees it. At one point, he tells a girl that he’s met (Zoe Kravitz) that she shouldn’t accept a limited image of herself. It’s more than a pep talk; it’s a way of saying that she doesn’t have to live down to the expectations of others.
Now, before we go any further, let me assure you that I’m making all this sound a bit more serious than it is. For the most part, Dope is a profane comedy, but one that’s built around the kind of entanglements that can develop in a tough neighborhood.
A convoluted plot forces Malcolm into the world of drugs. He meets and impresses a drug dealer named Dom (rapper ASAP Rocky), finds himself at a party where a fight breaks out and inadvertently winds up with a bunch of MDMA. During the chaos, someone stuffs the drugs into Malcolm’s backpack.
Knowing nothing about the world of drugs, Malcolm and his pals must find a way out of their jam. Dom, now under arrest, wants his drugs back. Dom’s rivals are also after the drugs.
Enough about the plot, which tends to resolve into a series of complications that wrap up with in a breezy style that’s not entirely fresh.
Intricacies of plot aside, Malcolm’s drug adventures bring him into contact with folks as varied as a shady Harvard grad businessman, the businessman’s wild-ass son and his sexually hyped up daughter.
Moore negotiates all of this with a sense of naivety and wide-eyed confusion that’s both credible and engaging. With a flat-top haircut and thrift-store fashions, Malcolm seems out of his depth until the movie snaps to attention with a strong and biting finale. Think of it as a bracing coda to what can feel like a less-than-riveting, drug-oriented plot.
Famuyiwa seems intent on shattering racial stereotypes, on providing live-wire jolts of entertainment and lacing it all with social commentary. That’s a tall order, and he doesn’t entirely deliver, but, when Dope is clicking, it’s winningly sure of itself and fun.