Kids, don’t do drugs, or sell them. But definitely listen to A Tribe Called Quest when you get the chance.
High school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is on the verge of graduating, figuring out of his major, getting into a good college, and getting the hell out of Inglewood. Though he will definitely miss his best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), he knows that this is what he needs to do to survive and make himself a better person, and not just a cliche of what everybody thinks as “the young, black kid in America”. However, all of his dreams and hopes get a bit blindsided when he’s at a party and things get out of hand – drugs are dealt, money is taken, guns are shot, bullets are flying. But, when it’s all over, somehow, Malcolm has a gun and a stash of drugs in his backpack, which seem to have gotten in there deliberately from the local drug-dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky). Now, Dom wants Malcolm to take the drugs to a place to make sure that he’s able to get out of jail, but now, somebody very threatening wants the drugs, too and now, Dom, has no idea what to do! All he knows now is that he has to rely on both his book, as well as his street smarts to get him out of this terrible situation.
Oh, and it all happens to the back-beat of some sick 90’s hip-hop jams; which, I have to say, is kind of strange considering that this movie, minus a few plot-points here and there, could have easily taken place in said decade. The movie very much feels like it’s trying to be the Boyz N the Hood for the new generation, but at the same time, still seems to be placed in the same time and place as that movie, that it can’t help but feel a tad bit like it’s unoriginal. But that’s the beauty of Dope: On the surface, it seems like you’re average, coming-of-age flick, but it somehow finds smart, interesting ways to spin itself that makes it feel fun, fresh and original, as if this were a story that was just being told to us for the first time, and excluding all of the other times we’ve seen movies about young drug-dealers just trying to survive.
Nope, Dope is something smarter and it wants you to know that, too.
Don’t get me wrong, though, no way in hell is Dope pretentious; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. While it’s a movie that seems to love and appreciate its characters, it still doesn’t shy away from the fact that they too, like all of us, make some incredibly terrible mistakes. Because Malcolm and his friends are so young, dorky, and closed-off from everyone else around them, it makes sense that they would only be able to react to a situation such as the one they’re thrown into, acting on pure ingenuity, regardless of what they think happens next. After all, they’re kids just acting like kids, so sue ’em!
But this is getting away from the reality that Dope is a familiar story, told exceptionally well by director Rick Famuyiwa. Even in the smaller, more intimate moments where it literally consists of two characters talking to one another about life, or what have you, there’s still a certain sense of energy behind Dope that’s infectious. While the movie takes place over a few weeks or so, it moves by so quickly and rapidly, that it literally could have been taken place in a single, hellacious day. And because of this, the movie never loses its muster; even if it is taken time to develop its characters a bit, there’s always a sense that there’s somewhere to go and that the plot needs to constantly unwrap.
Of course, by the end, the unwrapping gets a bit ridiculous. Though there’s a lot of eyebrow-raising coincidences that occur throughout a good majority of this movie, it’s the last-act or so where it seems like Famuyiwa loses a sense of this story a bit; then again, it seemed like it was inescapable. Because Dope is so swift and so willing to throw a twist and turn at us every chance it gets, it also suffers from the problem that it gets a bit too ahead of itself – even when it seems like we’re done with the whole drug-angle, the movie still continues to hammer away at it. Which is to say that the movie’s 110 time-limit could have easily been trimmed-down to at least 90 minutes and all would have been fine.
Then again, it’s hard to hate on a movie that’s having as much fun as Dope is.
Which, by a summer viewing standpoint, is exactly what you want. But at the same time, there’s still a message at the center of Dope that’s noteworthy and smart, and doesn’t try to cram down your throat (that is, until the last-act). Rather than being a tale about racism and how it affects our everyday landscape, Dope is more about how one person can get through that all and focus on what makes them better as a human being, rather than what it does for society. The characters in Dope realize that racism is indeed an issue, but they’re more or less concerned with how they’re going to get by in a world that constantly seems to be crushing them from both sides. Whereas some want to stay on the straight and narrow path of studying hard, getting a good job, and having a lovely life, others can’t ever see themselves doing that, so therefore, they stick to the streets where they deal drugs, rob people, and risk the chance of getting arrested and/or killed each and everyday. It’s a sad reality, but it’s the reality we live in.
And nobody knows this more than Malcolm, our main protagonist, played wonderfully by Shameik Moore. Malcolm is the 21st century definition of a “nerd”: While he’s definitely not the most popular kid in school, he’s far from being the dweeb. He dresses cool, isn’t too socially-awkward, and knows how the outside world works, even if he definitely gets picked-on by his confidantes because he’s smart and is able to use that to his advantage. Moore is great in this role because even though Malcolm seems to have it all figured out about what he wants to do with his life, he’s still far from growing up, or better yet, understanding everything there is to understand about life. He’s smart and inspired, but when he’s talking to girls or college counselors, he’s still a naive, 18-year-old kid that has an idea of what he wants, but when he gets right down to it, is still spacing out on all of the details.
Which we were all like at one point!
Playing Malcolm’s two buddies, Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori do solid jobs at making their personalities seem more than just “loving side kicks”; they too, like Malcolm, have their own dreams and aspirations, and are more than willing to support Malcolm in this poor situation. But perhaps the one that I was most impressed with was A$AP Rocky as the drug-dealer who puts the drugs in Malcolm’s bag in the first place, Dom. Even though it doesn’t seem like Rocky has to stretch himself too much to really fit into this role, he still impressed me with how he was able to embody a character that you’re never too sure about. Does Dom really like Malcolm? Or, basically, is he just using him for his own personal gain? And if so, what will he do to Dom when all is said and done?
Either way, you never know and it goes to show you that the list of good rappers-turned-actors just got a bit bigger.
Consensus: Despite a problematic last-act and run-time, Dope still treads along fine enough to where it’s entertaining, funny, and most of all, heartfelt to the point of where it seems like it’s offering you a glimpse into a character’s life whose is worth glimpsing into.
8 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire