Going down as a classic next to Attack The Block and Bend It Like Beckham in the pantheon of multicultural teen comedies.
I had no idea how to feel when I first heard about Dope: a high school coming-of-age movie salivated over at Sundance that started a bidding war between studios before finally being picked up for distribution by Open Road Films? It’s surprising that for a film with such a generic indie background, the film’s first trailer proceeded to grab me hook, line, and sinker. Much in the same way that films like The Goonies and The Breakfast Club appealed to the base (i.e. white) youth of their time, Dope‘s story of geeky minority teens figuring out their last year of high school while overloading the references to 90s pop culture appeals directly to my sensibilities so hard. Regardless, as a teen comedy, Dope has humor, style, and insight to spare alongside its superb cast.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a straight A student and nerd extraordinaire from Inglewood, CA who loves hip-hop and punk music, plays in a band called Awreeoh (pronounced Oreo) with his best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), dresses like he’s auditioning for the Native Tongues, and is setting his post-high school sights toward Harvard. Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib get an invite to a big even birthday party for drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky), where they cut loose and have some fun – until the party is busted by the cops and Dom swaps he and Malcolm’s bags. From this point on, the trio has to figure out a way to sell the crazy amount of drugs that are now on their person.
One of Dope’s greatest strengths and weaknesses is that the “plot” is less of a plot and more of a setup. Once the drugs are in play and an ominous gangster working against Dom starts tailing them, the trio meanders from set piece to set piece, and it’s always a blast to see what’s going to happen next. The cast sells the hell out of their roles, firmly communicating that even though this *is* a teen comedy, things can get really real really fast. Their screen time is brief, but Rocky and fellow MCs Vince Staples and Tyga are a lot of fun as a group of gang bangers and Zoë Kravitz is a blast as a young lady who catches Malcolm’s eye. It’s good to see Kravitz in roles that actually let her show off her chops, and she doesn’t disappoint here.
But the real MVPs are Moore, Clemons, and Revolori as the trio and writer-director Rick Famuyiwa for bringing this vision to life at long last. The film oozes style and comedy from its pores, but the main aspect that pushes it into the stratosphere is the wringing pathos of Malcolm’s development. As a straight-laced fun-loving kid from the ‘hood, Malcolm’s tried his hardest to avoid so-called “hood traps” and defy people’s expectations of a young Black man, but as the experiences become more and more ridiculous, he finds that in order to avoid being buried before graduation, he has to indulge in those same behaviors just to make it through the day. Blake Anderson as a drug-happy friend serving as the N-word spouting (really) troublemaker is just the icing on the cake. It’s a hell of a take on discovering yourself, one that many Black youth and even older can relate with, and Moore brings the kind of spark and determination to the role that’ll have his agent’s phone ringing come Monday morning.
Not since Attack The Block have I seen a teen coming-of-age movie like Dope, one that doesn’t shy away from poignant deconstruction of blighted surroundings and not forgetting the comedy, style, and tact necessary to not push this into heavy-handed PSA territory. This is one for the ages. Well done.
CineMasai has been vibing out to the soundtrack since last week.