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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: Dope (2015)

* * *

Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Shameik Moore

For a film that spends a decent amount of its running time hearkening back to the not too distant past, reviving dead fashions and obsessing over decades' old cultural artifacts, Rick Famuyiwa's Dope is a blisteringly original movie. Part comedy, part drama, part crime thriller, Dope is a film that defies easy categorization and which, if it did not have such a confident and skilled hand guiding it in writer/director Rick Famuyiwa, would probably fall apart as a result of its frequent and sharp tonal changes. In Famuyiwa's hands, though, it works, the film's point of view always firm, the shifts merely an expression of the complexity of the protagonist and his circumstances rather than a sign of a filmmaker who doesn't quite know how to say what he wants to say. Dope knows exactly what it's doing, and it does it well.

Set in the present day, Dope revolves around Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school senior obsessed with 1990s hip-hop culture. His best friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are similarly obsessed and together the three attempt to navigate the dangers of a high school where they're constantly being picked on and a neighborhood where they have to run a gauntlet of gang and drug activity. Though his guidance counselor thinks his chances of success are slim regardless of his GPA, Malcolm hopes to get into Harvard and has an interview coming up with an alumnus. Before that interview can take place, however, Malcolm ends up on the radar of Dom (A$AP Rocky), a drug dealer who gets him to act as a go-between with his girlfriend, Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), and which results in Malcolm receiving an invite to Dom's birthday party, which Jib and Diggy insist that they attend. The decision to go proves to be a fateful one, as a rival gang shows up and engages with Dom and his gang in a shoot out and in the midst of the chaos Dom hides a gun and some drugs in Malcolm's backpack, which Malcolm unwittingly ends up taking to school the next day. As soon as he finds the contraband, he also receives a mysterious phone call telling him when and where he needs to exchange it.

Though he almost makes the exchange as ordered, Malcolm is given a last minute heads up by Dom that it's a trap and he, Jib, and Diggy instead head for the home of AJ, one of Dom's associates, to get help. There tings quickly begin to go sideways in a different way thanks to AJ's teenage son and daughter, but it's AJ himself who proves to be the real thorn in Malcolm's side, putting Malcolm in the position of having to sell the drugs himself since Dom is in jail and unable to take charge of it. Enlisting the help of a band camp friend, Malcolm comes up with a way to sell the drugs through an online network via untraceable Bitcoin transactions, which can then be exchanged for cash, though doing so does bring the risk of being caught by the FBI. While all this is going on Malcolm is also still trying to make inroads with Nakia, who has indicated to him that she's unimpressed by guys like Dom and likes that Malcolm is different, but almost screws it up when his paranoia that everyone is working against him (because, at times, it seems like everyone is working against him) leads him to lash out with her in a way that he immediately regrets.

In its opening stretch, Dope plays out as a potent commentary on the nature of nostalgia and the way that pieces of culture are cherry picked and celebrated as if they existed in a vacuum. The sartorial choices of the main characters, the music they listen to and talk about, and in some respects the way that they talk, actively bring to mind the early 1990s hood movies and, in particular, Boyz n the Hood. Yet, while the issues encountered by Malcolm and his friends (poverty, the prevalence of drugs, the threat of gang violence) are not terrifically different from those confronted by the characters in that film, the tone in which those issues are explored is very, very different. In Boyz n the Hood there was anger, urgency, and frustration, but in Dope (at least at first) the issues are treated in a darkly lighthearted way, such as when an acquaintance of the main trio's is described being gunned down when he has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and what is lamented is that he was this close to beating a level on his Game Boy when it happened. Malcolm and his friends are commemorating the early 1990s as halcyon days, focusing on the cultural markers of clothing, technology, and music, while deemphasizing the violence that marked the period. This isn't to say that Famuyiwa and the film don't take matters seriously; rather, that deceptively light tone functions to break down your defenses as a viewer so that the film can build towards making an explicit socio-political statement towards the end that feels all the more powerful because you're not on guard against the film delivering an explicit message.

It's loudest and clearest statement is about how, at an institutional level, the deck is stacked against young people like Malcolm and manipulated to keep them from gaining upward mobility and changing their circumstances (Malcolm doesn't just have be exceptional; he has to be exceptionally exceptional and lucky and find a useful connection to give him a hand up), but Dope has a lot to say about a lot of things in both subtle and direct ways. At the same time, however, I wouldn't necessarily call it a "message" movie because that tends to imply something dry and pedagogic, and Dope is a really entertaining movie. It's funny and smart and Famuyiwa unfolds it in an energetic and visually interesting way that keeps the viewer engaged from beginning to end. Dope is one of the year's small gems.

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