Review: Dope (2015)

My Plot review: Recommended
Star rating: Star rating of 3

Jib, Dibby, and Malcolm - a scene from Dope

"Dope is bags of fun, unique, and a fantastic mix of drama and comedy."

With cinema’s quiet season upon us, I’ve been revisiting my watchlist on Plot, with 2015’s Dope the latest entry to catch my eye. Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, it’s quickly evident that he’s progressed a lot over five years, with the questionable Our Family Wedding from 2010 my only past experience with his work. Dope is bags of fun, unique, and a fantastic mix of drama and comedy.

We follow the story of Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a resident of “The Bottoms”, a crime ridden neighbourhood in Inglewood, California. What varies from a thousand other scripts that start this way, is that Malcolm is a geek, along with his two friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). However, that’s not to say the trio don’t share the same problems many coming-of-age black protagonists do in more common scripts - they’re surrounded by violence, drugs, and broken, low-income families.

What’s initially a little off is that the geek representation seems far too... cool. Hollywood often goes way too far in the opposite direction, with the traditional geek a lazy cliché of unbearable awkwardness and literally defunct social skills. Realistically, the majority of high school geeks are at least partially up the ladder of social acceptance. Malcolm, Jib and Diggy certainly are, but coupled with their mellow personalities, bang on-trend fashion, good looks, academic intelligence, and the fact they have their own punk band, they may as well be towering down from the top rung.

But school’s societal system is a far different one, even more so in a ghetto of LA. Testosterone rules, and academic abilities certainly don't — that’s where our trio are going wrong, so having to pick their routes home to avoid being harassed or mugged by gangs and drug dealers does make sense. Still, the punk band is just too far. Absolutely anyone finds that shit cool.

Providing errands for one of the more welcoming drug dealers — Dom (A$AP Rocky) leads Malcolm to Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), who he instantly becomes infatuated with. Nakia soon accompanies Malcolm to Dom’s birthday celebration in a nearby club, where things start getting hectic. Seemingly a planned drug deal goes wrong, with gunshots and arrests aplenty. In the chaos, Dom sneaks the huge stash of MDMA out via the unknowing Malcolm’s bag. After quickly realising going to the cops or any dealers is guaranteed to result in disaster, Malcolm, Jib and Diggy get to work on selling them… the geek’s way. Bitcoin and hacking aplenty.

This sets up the two goals Malcolm has in this story. Embrace his newfound drug dealing skills, making plentiful dollar while ridding himself of this MDMA. And get himself into Harvard. The two quickly become somewhat intertwined.

Dope never stops feeling fresh. It gracefully jumps between nerd and hood culture, referencing Bitcoin in one scene, and a gunshot to the leg in the next. Huge credit must also go toward Famuyiwa and cinematographer Rachel Morrison for a gorgeous sun-drenched aesthetic. Coupled with heaps of reminiscent 90’s west coat fashion, and an unexpectedly incredible soundtrack, it’s been a while since I’ve watched such a modern feeling film.

The fresh vibes don’t quite prevent the script from losing a little bit of momentum in the second half. Certain scenes feel like they could have been condensed to maintain the pace of the opening. The details around modern day drug dealing soon turn from intriguing narration to something a little more laborious.

Dope concludes with a satisfying and thought provoking finale. But it arguably presents too many questions while doing so, it’s hard to work out exactly what sort of message it’s trying to convey. Is total avoidance of criminality impossible for a young black male from The Bottoms who wants to make it? Does Dope really fight the nerd’s corner if our protagonist can drop a large portion of that persona at will? Maybe the uncertainty is fully intentional, but there's definitely a few mixed messages.

Huge praise must be heaped on Shameik Moore, who portrays his character of Malcolm almost flawlessly. Any doubts around the realism of the more material aspects of the "geek" become irrelevant with how accurately Moore performs the characteristics. Socially unconfident but not useless. Simultaneously insecure and yet hints of arrogance. Overall he's charming and a character you can fully get behind. A lot like the movie he's starring in.

Dope is one for your watchlist.