Dope Dir. Rick Famuyiwa

[Open Road; 2015]

Styles: worst-case-scenario comedy, teen movie, summertime rolls, crime idyll
Others: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Beasts of The Southern Wild, School Daze, Slums of Beverly Hills, The Dirties, City of God

Friends are underrated, for sure. That’s why they become undervalued. But we need our friendships, paradoxically, sometimes more than that gallingly finite biological imperative that pressures us all in different ways. While Dope is essentially a pulpy lark, it captures that comfort zone of shared creativity and intellectual curiosity and how our raging teenage hormones often only serve to undermine our more expansive aims. This film (in part) decelerates the love interest-prerogative, focusing more on furious masturbation and sweaty proximity to objects of desire. It lets a kid be a kid, even if our protagonist is coming of age in Inglewood, CA< where kids have a tendency to grow up fast. Malcolm’s ( (Shameik Moore) friends aren’t appendages, but crucial elements to his story. The bond of Malcolm, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and Jib (Tony Revolori) is so solid as to make all the heightened misadventure almost seem like backdrop. This is a film of fever-pitched sensationalism, but what endears it most to this viewer is the elusive, uncomplicated bliss of belonging without obligation.

Now there’s a fare share of items to nitpick about here, starting with the fact that Dope resembles many underdog stories that have come before. And the Pharrell-penned sounds of the threesome’s band are more Mickey Mouse than their sweary lyrics may suggest, so their extended presence is a slight palate-wrecker. Not to mention the Korn, which has aged nowhere near as well as Nas or Tribe. The Forest Whitaker voice-over narration at the top is lily-gildingly superfluous (à la Arrested Development). I could go on, but I had a fantastic time watching this movie. I, and the audience, laughed a great deal. Not everything may mesh, like the United States of Poetry-esque presentation of Malcolm’s college entrance essay. Based on the exhilaratingly lurid Pulp Fiction-by-way-of-Go hijinks and 90s music preceding it, his original attempt exploring the nuances of Ice Cube’s legendary “Good Day” may’ve been more appropriate. But as Dope semi-resides in that quixotic territory of Hughesian misadventure, it’s best to let the tonal indulgences/missteps go. What Dope lacks in dramatic resonance (a simple, weary dream sequence on the bus is a key exception due in no small part to its use of this gem), it more than makes up for with quick, punchy writing performed with indelible aplomb by a solid cast of soon-to-be knowns (and A$AP Rocky).

OK. One more nitpick. Solid character actor Roger Guenveur Smith (well proven at playing intense, nervous men in crime dramas) is way too easily upstaged by the energetic Shameik Moore, rendering scenes that should contain some level of menace and tension frustratingly inert. Perhaps it’s miscasting, or the convolution of the plot (Smith’s character is a Harvard alumnus referred to by Malcolm’s guidance counselor who is somehow related to drug dealer Dom, whose product Malcolm wound up with and is trying to return to Smith as per Dom’s instructions from jail), but these scenes take you out of an otherwise tight, kinetic comedy. However, similarly to the messy/brilliant vibe-based horror It Follows, the aesthetically templated yet triumphant big-screen moments on display (sometimes as simple as the three friends on their bikes sunset silhouetted with palm trees, or a fetching rendition of those after school suburban tracking shots from Halloween), easily make up for some of the more questionable choices (which even so-called classics are rife with). Both films seem to value heightened, relentless sensory deluge over conciseness of plotting or even logic. They are encouraging examples of genre films going for it in the age of cannibalistic cinematic bet-hedging. Traditional tropes may play a significant role, but there is a restless drive to make its performers justify their coveted place in front of the camera.

And it is a camera that loves its subjects as much as the actors give of themselves. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison and editor Lee Haugen bring a playful, music video style to the proceedings that nonetheless gets out of the way for a script that escapes the stilted, cultural-commentary-as-dialogue approach of Dear White People and actually uses real human charisma (or anti-charisma) over endless talking points. As much as her character is the sort of Anna Nicole sex clown that’s as old as crime story lore itself, Chanel Iman’s performance as Lily deserves special mention. While her impressive physique is given liberal consideration, her impeccably drawn sideways slapstick is the main focus. It seems Famuyiwa and his crew were intent letting the film’s supporting players shine, imbuing its more traditional, crowd pleasing pratfalls with a lackadaisical, awkward charm. This also goes for Quincy Brown, who plays the wannabe banger/spoiled rich kid Jaleel with an outsized but detail-rich flair.

Movie after movie has these terse/silly scenes of neophytes stumbling into dealings with hardened criminals, but very few acquit themselves so admirably. There’s always that sense of straining approximation. Not so here. This is a refreshing movie for being familiar, yet having the sort of signature voice that’ll likely bear up to repeat viewings in the years to come. Its messages might feel mixed, but we live in increasingly mixed-message times, where people of all ages are learning and changing and devolving at impossibly different rates. It goes with the idea of nostalgia vs. timelessness that Dope’s soundtrack so deftly intones. Idealism and maturity, like modernity and tradition, make for strange bedfellows. So while Dope may come off like a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too, it’s really a sharp application of warring, yet intrinsic sensibilities that leaves the viewer plenty room to rest on what they will. For me, it’s strength through comradery. For someone else it may be the idea of getting in on that unethically lucrative dark web bitcoin drug trade. There’s all kinds of thematic takeaway, but most significantly, Dope is exceptional for being refreshingly smarter and funnier than its heavier-thumbed antecedents.

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