Since the abysmal Me and Earl and the Dying Girl left a regrettable aftertaste, the energetic coming of age comedy Dope is like a soothing tonic. The latest from writer and director and Rick Famuyiwa also references classic films, even integrating iconic shots into his film’s plot, yet there is a tone and sense of space here that’s entirely unique. There are not many movies out there that could weave classic hip-hop and the advantages of bitcoin into its plot. Dope does exactly that, albeit with varying degrees of success. Still, it is hard to begrudge Famuyiwa since he never once condescends to his unique characters, or the audience by extension.
Forest Whitaker, who produced the film alongside Pharrell, provides a gentle opening narration. Dope’s hero is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a self-described geek who loves esoteric music and gets good grades. He does not have time to feel alienation, however, since he lives in a poor, predominantly black Los Angeles neighborhood where his classmates steal his shoe (yes, singular) and Bloods attempt to steal his bike.
One afternoon Malcolm strikes up a conversation with Dom (A$ap Rocky), a confident drug dealer, and they discover mutual appreciation of Public Enemy and Jay-Z. Dom invites Malcolm to his birthday party, but when it’s broken up by the police, Dom hides his stash in Malcolm’s bag. This sends Malcolm to a panic, and the only logical thing to do is sell them with the help of his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). But Dope is a coming of age movie, so our hero also struggles to impress the hot girl (Zoe Kravitz) and a corrupt Harvard alum who might be his ticket to admission.
Unlike most coming of age films whose suburbs feel anonymous, Dope has a specific sense of place. There’s a spontaneity to the action: we have an idea of how a scene will go, then Famuyiwa interrupts our expectations and overall suggestion is that, well, the white, middle-class suburban heroes of indie comedies have privilege that poor black ones do not. In addition to traditional filmmaking, including a couple virtuoso chase sequences, Famuyiwa also uses lots of glossy editing techniques: he incorporates social media into the frame, sometimes with split-screens and the occasional abrupt jump cut (those jump cuts lead to the film’s biggest laugh).
The dialogue and performances match Famuyiwa’s inventive flourishes: Dope has non-stop profanity, for one thing, yet the characters still have typical hang-ups and idiosyncrasies. The trio of friends have lived-in chemistry, as if they’ve known each other for years, and their scenes with a white hacker (Blake Anderson) have a funny, observant dissection about why white people cannot say the n-word. In terms of form and tone, Dope is an undeniable, heartfelt response to typical Sundance darlings. Anger and frustration inform the movie – those feelings can be the best sources of inspiration – yet Famuyiwa recognizes that comedy and character must come first.
While Dope has the potential to be a sleeper hit – audiences will talk about this movie to their friends – it suffers from a minor identity crisis. Famuyiwa takes hip-hop sensibilities (i.e. borrowing from other genres and making them his own), and applies them to cinematically: there are direct, clever references to both Boyz in the Hood and Risky Business, among others, but some of this appropriating is a distraction. There is a needlessly complex heist sub-plot, for one thing, and Famuyiwa diminishes the power of a Spike Lee-inspired denouement with a superfluous coda. The convoluted story of Malcolm’s drug-dealing efforts, which dominates the second half of Dope, interrupt the slice-of-life charm of his vibrant environment. But as a fellow geek who is into weird music, I found myself rooting for Malcolm and his buddies. Like Malcolm, Famuyiwa has specific point of view and is smart enough recognize that others will come around to it.