MOVIE REVIEW: Dope
"DOPE"-- 4 STARS
Coming-of-age films come in all shapes, sizes, flavors, and colors. It has been a screenwriting and storytelling favorite and staple for the entirety of this art form. A valued writer and peer that this website follows often is Ethan Anderton, who writes for the highly-regarded film blog /Film. In honor of the arrival of "Dope" and "Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl" hitting theaters this weekend, Ethan compiled a fine list, topped by "Almost Famous," of the best 25 coming-of-age films of the last 25 years. Anytime a "best" list like that is made, everyone has their own personal favorites and preferences. Anderton did his homework and includes a list of honorable mentions as good and as deep as the final Top 25.
If there is one large criticism from Ethan's list worth diving into, it is the dearth and possible omission of strong coming-of-age films featuring minority demographics, especially the African-American community in particular. A thin two ("Pan's Labyrinth" and "Yi Tu Mama Tambien") films are present that feature main characters of minority backgrounds and both of those are Spanish-focused. Once again, these lists are built by personal preferences, but something, even plenty, feels missing.
There are excellent and noteworthy African-American-centered coming-of-age films that demand more remembrance, reflection, attention, merit, and respect. Look no further than the John Singleton's seminal 1991 debut "Boyz 'n the Hood" or the dramatic Hughes Brothers 1993 debut "Menace II Society." Dig a little deeper and you'll find more winners. Madame Noire, an lifestyle website serving African-American women, nailed an excellent list of 15 favorite black coming-of-age films. It is filled to the brim with solid contributions worthy of higher acclaim.
The next sure-fire addition to either website's list of possibly great coming-of-age films is "Dope," the fifth feature film from writer-director Rich Famuyiwa ("Brown Sugar," "The Wood'). "Dope" has had a stellar 2015 so far building momentum and buzz. It debuted in dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival and was selected as the prestigious closing film of the Director's Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in France last month. Those are prominent feathers to have in any film's cap. Better yet, they are kudos that are more than earned by this film's energetic brilliance.
Virtual unknown Shameik Moore stars as Malcolm, a misunderstood high school senior living in "The Bottoms," a crime and drug-riddled southern portion of Inglewood, California. He's a self-described "geek" for all things related to throwback 1990's hip-hop culture and has a pair of dedicated wingman friends, the multiracial Jib (Tony Revolori from "The Grand Budapest Hotel") and the shunned lesbian Diggy (TV actress Kiersey Clemons) that share the same affinity and tastes. named Awreeoh (pronounced like "Oreo"). Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy have dove all-in with the fashion (tight-tolled jeans and loud shirts), the music (anything from "Yo! MTV Raps"), and the lingo that his other contemporary and rougher peers consider "white s--t." All three are bullied and ostracized invisible kids in a dangerous neighborhood where crooked gang affiliation rules everything. Malcolm is happy any night he can get home without getting his bike or shoes stolen or his face beaten up.
Beneath the eclectic and colorful surface, Malcolm is a whip-smart and creative kid. He and his friends have a dynamic little grunge-style garage band named Awreeoh (pronounced like "Oreo") that collaborates in an empty school classroom. Malcolm is a good kid who has always stayed out of trouble and minds his own business, which already makes his hard-working, bus-driving single mother (veteran Kimberly Elise) proud. Best of all, Malcolm is an outstanding writer and student who is gunning to be accepted to Harvard University, as aspiration naturally laughed at and unheard of coming out of Inglewood.
Even with big dreams, Malcolm is still a full-blown teenager. Though confident to some degree in his self-image, he sure wishes it could get him a date or two. Pretty girls (like former Victoria Secret model Chanel Iman) turn his head easily but he really pines for an older girl named Nakia (played by Zoe Kravitz), who unofficially belongs to Dom (Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky), the heaviest hitting up-and-coming gangster on the block. When Nakia invites Malcolm and his friends to one of Dom's parties, everything snowballs. The uncharacteristic night of wild partying that ends in a gang warfare shoot-out is already too much for Malcolm and his buddies, but arriving at school the next day to find his backpack filled with kilos of drugs and a loaded handgun is a comedic turn for the worse.
This isn't a "Sandlot"-level "pickle." This is much worse. Having the highly illegal and incredibly valuable property of someone else attracts the wrong kind of attention and sure doesn't mix well with his good standing at school and future college aspirations. Malcolm enlists the help of Diggy, Jib, and a white boy slacker/hacker named Will ("Workaholics" TV and meme star Blake Anderson) to find a profitable way to deal with the situation. Along the way, he finds his way of manning up that's been missing.
"Dope" has the potential to go down as the birthplace for some truly impressive new performers. Lead actor Shameik Moore is an outstanding discovery in his first feature film role and the camera rarely leaves his approachable, yet vulnerable, exuberance. Tony Revolori already stole some of the show as Lobby Boy Zero beside multiple Oscar winners and nominees in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and turns in another head-turning manic performance in a role completely opposite to the Wes Anderson film. Zoe Kravitz tones down most of the snarling traces of a Michelle "I Smell Skanks" Rodriguez-esque tough girl performance to show vulnerability and appeal. Hiding behind the main ensemble, A$AP Rocky, real name Rakim Mayers, paints nice and untapped hues of greater worldliness of his own lurking underneath the alpha dog thug Dom. Write these kids' names down. You're bound to see them again.
The easiest way to explain and offer a comparison for "Dope" is to have you picture two other well-regarded, albeit white-centered, coming-of-age films: "Risky Business" and "Superbad." Writer and director Rick Famuyiwa himself has stated that shady entrepreneurial endeavors of "Risky Business" were a direct influence for "Dope." Malcolm, with his smarts, tech-savvy sense, and a camouflaged image as a kid that does nothing wrong, gets the ambitious idea to moonlight as a Bitcoin-fed black market internet drug dealer as a way of getting rid of the drugs. The zany measures he and his friends have to go to make that happen hearken back to the hilarious shenanigans of "Superbad" where a couple of uncool kids will do anything illegal and over their heads to be cooler and more accepted. Those are two solid comps.
Narrated by Academy Award winner Forrest Whitaker and featuring a kicking soundtrack that is Pharrell Williams-produced and approved, "Dope" rises above the weak comedic formula of going to the well too often for the repetitive gross-out gags and childish sexual humor that normally saddle coming-of-age comedies. "Dope" deftly avoids those mistakes.
The film twists the usual hallmarks and cliches with a strong element of relevant danger and topicality lining the bottom of all the funny and compromising situations our teens find themselves embroiled in. With an unknown cast and no big studios pulling the strings, there is also an inherent innocence present in "Dope" as well that supports that relevance in a strong and positive fashion. The extra ingredients of danger and innocence are not always believable or balanced, but the back-and-forth between laugh-out-loud comedy and pulse-quickening suspense is an effective and welcome landscape to tell, making "Dope" a uniquely satisfying and incredibly cool coming-of-age story.
LESSON #1: THE MANY DEFINITIONS OF "DOPE"-- The opening credits of the film offer multiple definitions of the word "dope," all of which apply to some memorable aspect of the film itself. There are people characterized as stupid and annoying. The elephant in the room is cache of uncut illegal drugs Malcolm finds himself in possession of. There is a bevy of information and misinformation from reliable sources. Lastly, all of our young protagonists would love the Urban Dictionary adjective form of "dope" to describe how good something is affixed to their social reputations.
LESSON #2: THE RESOURCEFULNESS AND VALUE OF A "GEEK"-- The fictitious Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib are three of a unique and special kind of geeks. Much like the coming-of-age film genre discussed at the opening, geeks too come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. In the large majority of cases, "geek" is not an endearing or respected label. It's hard out there for them. However, geeks tend to be the smart guys and gals that really rule this world, know what's going on in any given random situation, and have the capability to offer us the best creativity around. What they pull off together in "Dope" proves that in spades. They deserve more special acceptance and treatment than the bullying and weird dismissal they tend to get each and every day.
LESSON #3: DON'T SETTLE FOR WHAT IS EXPECTED-- Here is this movie's character-building and character-quoted mantra. This website is written by an educator who has long sought to identify educational qualities about movies. Just to share a little source from the opposite side of movies, there is an influential educational author and theorist named Jonathan Kozol who has long touted the notion that people are a product of their environment. While, yes, the home community environment can certainly influence the morals, values, and goals of impressionable students, I, for one, refuse to believe that people are destined and sealed to the fate of that environment. For as much as I myself am not a farmer after growing up as a gravel-road-small-town-country-boy, Malcolm isn't a gang-banging thug whatsoever destined for a life of poverty and crime. He aims higher than his address or the color of his skin. He transcends boundaries and doesn't settle for what everyone else seems to be resigned to. That is an remarkable quality lost on too many young people today. Maybe a film like "Dope" can get more of that message out there.