Silver Screen: Dope ****
What a difference a summer makes.
Dope performed modestly when it was released in June, but that was before hip-hop epic Straight Outta Compton exploded at the box office. Perhaps to piggyback off that success, the studio has rereleased Dope for a second theatrical run. Call it a blatant attempt to cash in on Compton’s success if you want, but the rerelease is a great opportunity to catch one of this year’s hidden gems.
Dope’s connection to NWA and nineties rap is more thematic than literal. The three teenage leads in this frenetic coming-of-age dramedy are obsessed with the era of Biggie and Tupac, Yo! MTV Raps, Death Row Records— basically the backbeat of the Clinton era. As our main man Malcolm (Shameik Moore) explains, in nerdy detail, nineties music actually kicked off in the late eighties with the rise of NWA and didn’t end until 2001 with the punctuation mark of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint.
Because Malcolm, along with his best pals Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), is a geek. The three are outcasts struggling to survive in the harsh South Central neighborhoods rhapsodized in their favorite rap records. The practical realities of life as a ghetto dweeb are even harsher. Diggy is a butch lesbian who takes no guff, while Jib is ambiguously Latino while proudly claiming fourteen percent African American heritage (which he discovered on Ancestry.com). Malcolm actually stands out even more with his Kid ‘n’ Play fade haircut and garish fashion choices straight out of an MC Hammer video.
The three best pals are into what they describe as “white stuff,” which in their world includes reading manga comics, getting good grades, and playing in their pop-punk band, Oreo. Now they’re at the tail end of their senior year, hoping to avoid bullies and stray bullets long enough to get into college. For Malcolm, that means applying to Harvard, no matter how unlikely a proposition his guidance counselor believes that to be.
The trio blunders haplessly into the thug life when local corner drug dealer Dom (Rakim Mayers, aka A$ap Rocky) takes a shine to Malcolm and invites him to his birthday party. Malcolm’s long-standing crush on Dom’s sensitive, melancholy girlfriend Nakia (Zoe Kravitz) draws him irresistibly to the party, which devolves into a shootout. It’s only after our crew flees in a panic that Malcolm realizes Dom stashed several pounds of high-grade Molly in his backpack.
Now Malcolm is trapped between Dom, Dom’s rival gang, his exasperated school counselor, and a shady local businessman (Roger Guenveur Smith) who might be his ticket to Harvard— or his worst enemy.
The plot may sound like fodder for an issue-driven drama, but writer/director Rick Famuyiwa handles the material with an almost jaunty comedic touch. There could be a calamitous disparity between the dire consequences at hand and the movie’s antic tone, but it works surprisingly well, in large part because clueless Malcolm and his pals are themselves so unsuited for the world they reside in. They’ve lived among grim realities for so long they’ve learned to shrug off that grimness, and this attitude permeates the film.
Dope is overstuffed, which is both its Achilles’ heel and its greatest asset. It tries to be a little bit of everything all at once. The first half of the film plays like a tightly compressed, one-crazy-day comedy, with Malcolm and company dodging a barrage of threats as various subplots overlap and intertwine. Then, in the second half, the narrative surges across a month or so’s time. The story is propelled by unlikely coincidences that inadvertently suggest only fifty or so people live in the Crenshaw neighborhood. Along the way, Famuyiwa finds room for a superfluous voiceover, several shootouts, two party montages, a full-band performance, an internally generated meme (“Lila Got Me Like”), a love story, a sex story, and then another voiceover by an entirely different character, the latter in the form of the somewhat ubiquitous college-application essay summation of events.
But if Dope is overstuffed, it’s generously so. Famuyiwa’s abundant enthusiasm captures the dizzying energy of adolescence, and the movie’s reckless forward momentum gives it a vitality too rarely seen onscreen this year.
The greatest casualty of Famuyiwa’s approach is the lack of time spent developing Diggy and Jib, both of whom are fascinating characters relegated almost entirely to sidekick status. It’s a shame, because they’re more interesting than the protagonists of most other films, and perfectly cast to boot. Clemons is so tough, confident, and beautiful she’s begging for her own solo project, and Revolori, who was terrific in The Grand Budapest Hotel, is a scene-stealer in the 1980s teen-movie tradition of Cameron, Stiles, and Charles De Mar.
That said, Moore is outstanding— silly and vulnerable, but able to conjure startling intensity. He makes a potentially zany character believable, and an incredibly specific character broadly relatable (aided in no small part by Famuyiwa’s sharp writing). Through him Famuyiwa is able to convey the damning conflict between the laws of society and the practical laws of the streets that Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in Between the World and Me: “If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. Fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.”
Read Coates’s excellent book, by the way, but by all means, see Dope, a movie that’s powerful and funny and moving and, above all else, ebullient.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.