6.7 / 10
For me, Dope was that kind of a film where I really had to contemplate whether I enjoyed it as a whole. It pleasantly surprised me in parts, mostly because of its fine young cast. I’m certain its coming-of-age drama/teen sex comedy/gangster/stoner amalgamation of a script contributed to that. Simply, I’m not quite sure what to make of it.
Rick Famuyiwa’s fifth film follows Malcolm Adekanbi, an 90’s hip-hop loving, African-American teen who struggles to avoid the pitfalls of being typecast as a street punk because of his race. That’s difficult for Malcolm, and constantly being surrounded by the drug dealers of Inglewood, SoCal doesn’t help. He attempts to block out the stereotypes by hanging with his two friends, Diggy and Jib, with whom he’s in a punk rock band. Malcolm’s dream of getting into Harvard is jeopardized, when a certain drug dealer stashes a large block of Molly in his backpack. Rather than going to the police, the three teens have to find a method of either discarding the drugs, or distributing it themselves.
Aside from its direction (which admittedly is rather pedestrian, save for a few innovative editing techniques), Dope is realistically complex. Something I didn’t immediately understand after viewing the film was why Famuyiwa decided to cram four genres into a film that would have been acceptable as merely a drug comedy. But a drug comedy isn’t, after all, what he’s after. Rather, Famuyiwa uses the drug aspect not to pontificate about the dangers of taking them, but to discern how Blacks are typically associated with them in society. I suppose it’s satire, in a way.
Take, for example, Malcolm’s college counselor insisting that he write about his poor neighborhood or his lack of a father in his Common App. Malcolm pauses before he states, “It’s too cliché.” Similarly, the movie, for the most part, wisely glosses over most “Black” stereotypes. Of course, the “N” word flows like tap water in this film, but it’s expected given the setting and mainly African-American cast. Famuyiwa’s script meticulously captures how teenagers in Inglewood would sound like.
Famuyiwa nails authenticity. Every “um”, natural pause, and teenager sarcasm are all there, yet it wouldn’t sound as good coming from the mouths of inferior actors. Shameik Moore’s Malcolm is outstanding because he refuses to ham it up. His face, while not as rubbery as Jim Carrey’s, is quietly subdued and yet expressive. Moore’s eyes falter when he sees an attractive girl. He stutters when he’s nervous. None of the teen acting is over-the-top, and it’s funny because interactions played so real when the plot about dealing molly out of high school is so ridiculous.
The script doesn’t call much attention to race issues until the end, but this is where the tone gets a bit messy. This movie, as I realize, was constructed by Famuyiwa to be more than just a wacky teen comedy about drugs. He really wants to talk about how the American system tends to perceive African-Americans in a unjustly negative light, as we see in Malcolm’s ending monologue. Without context, a black kid saying these words is accurate, but within the context of the film, the previous 90 minutes of which were a wacky teen comedy about drugs, the message is harder to swallow.
What kind of movie does it want to be? I’m sure Famuyiwa wanted his message to be the backbone of the entire movie, but when people go to see Dope expecting the teeny-version of Friday but get more of Do the Right Thing, they’ll be like I was: surprised.