Film Review: ‘Dope’

Dope Sundance

Rick Famuyiwa's indie-est project since 'The Woods' is a buoyant teen caper comedy that's one of this year's brighter Sundance commercial prospects.

Sure to be one of the buzzier commercial prospects coming out of Sundance this year, “Dope” is a buoyant teenage caper that has at least as much in common with John Hughes-style high-school comedies as it does with most ‘hood narratives involving drugs, gangs and crime. That mix risks silliness at times, but there’s so much playful energy and wit to Rick Famuyiwa’s indie-est project since “The Wood” (1999) that few viewers will mind. A soundtrack featuring new songs by Pharrell Williams will be a big plus in promoting a film that might conceivably fall between arthouse and mainstream camps theatrically, but should play well to any wider audiences it reaches.

High-school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) embodies one cliche demographically: He’s a poor black Los Angeleno supported by a single working mom (Kimberly Elise), his father long gone (back to Africa, in fact). But in other ways, he embodies something else entirely. He, as well as best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), are all about “white stuff” — meaning they like things that most in their black Inglewood neighborhood consider White People Territory, including classic ’90s hip-hop culture, BMX biking, getting good grades and miscellaneous geek fixations. They’ve even formed their own punk band. This just gets them regularly picked on by gangbangers in and out of school; going home each day, they run a gauntlet of bullying jocks, Bloods and dealers.

One of the latter, Dom (A$AP Rocky) turns a chance encounter into an excuse to use Malcolm as go-between in his attempts to woo Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), the cornrowed beauty his messenger boy was already crushing on. This results in all of the above characters intersecting at a club for Dom’s birthday party that night. When the birthday celebrant’s backroom drug deal turns into a gun melee, Malcolm scores points with Nakia by ushering her to safety. It’s not until the next day that he realizes he’s unknowingly ushered something else out — Dom stuck $100,000 worth of Ecstasy into the high schooler’s backpack.

Apprising Diggy and Jib of his predicament, Malcolm is determined to get rid of the stuff before he’s killed, or before its detection kills his hopes of Ivy League enrollment. But it turns out Dom is now temporarily behind bars, and fully armed others are already pursuing the missing goods. Instructions to hand them over to Dom’s surrogate results in a mid-film comic highlight embroiling the three youths in possible virginity loss (to Chanel Iman’s libidinous Lily), jamming in the home studio of a rich kid (Quincy Brown), fleeing a fast-food-joint shootout, and just making it to an appointment with a Harvard interviewer (Roger Guenveur Smith). After that mess, the kids decide they might as well sell the drugs themselves, using a hacker/dealer/wigger, Will (Blake Anderson) to show them the ropes, and choosing Bitcoin as their legality-evading transaction payment.

By the time that scheme has gone viral (as does the protags’ band, via YouTube), the helmer’s freewheeling screenplay has cheerfully snapped any remaining tether to reality. At this point, a movie hitherto crammed to the gills with incident overcompensates by doing a little too much preachy telling rather than showing in its last stretch, as if it weren’t already obvious that its heart is in the right place — as opposed to, you know, the blithely pro-drug-dealing wrong place. But the fun momentum of “Dope’s” breakneck plotting and snappy dialogue easily overcome any momentary attack of earnestness.

The cast, drawn from comedy, rap, TV, modeling and other spheres, is sharply on form throughout, as is Famuyiwa’s direction; the pic’s esprit is amplified by every editorial trick in the book, from split-screen to freeze-frames. Rachel Morrison’s widescreen lensing provides plenty of equally antic eye candy, abetted by colorful design contributions. The crowded various-artists soundtrack is first-rate, not least the couple songs allegedly created by the protags’ punk trio, Oreo.

Film Review: 'Dope'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 24, 2015. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production

A Significant Prods. and I Am Other Entertainment presentation in association with Revolt Films. Produced by Nina Yang Boniovi, Forest Whitaker. Executive producers, Michael Y. Chow, Rick Famuyiwa, David Lonner. Co-producers, Mimi Valdes, David Grace. Co-executive producer, Sean Combs.

Crew

Directed, written by Rick Famuyiwa. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Rachel Morrison; editor, Lee Haugen; music, Pharrell Williams, Germaine Franco; production designer, Scott Falconer; costume designer, Patrik Milani; art director, Lawson Brown; set decorator, Christine Eyer; sound, Mary Jo Devenney; re-recording mixers, Craigg Mann, Laura Wiest; supervising sound editor, Mann; assistant directors, Tony Steinberg, Mark Oppenheimer; casting, Kim Coleman.

With

Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Keith Stanfield, De'Aundre Bonds, Roger Guenveur Smith, Blake Andeson, Zoe Kravitz, A$AP Rocky, Forest Whitaker, Quincy Brown, Rick Fox, Amin Joseph, Ashton Moio, Chanel Iman.

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  1. Pharrell did a great job with this sound track! My favorite song is track 6, “Don’t Get Deleted”

  2. Ella says:

    A couple of lazy errors on this review. To name a few: The kids didn’t gleefully decide to sell drugs, the name of the band is called Awreeoh and Kravitz’s hair was braided, not cornrowed.

    The only disappointment I had was with the marketing. This movie was incredibly enjoyable to watch and far from what I expected or gleaned from the previews. Dope was Dope! Go see it.

  3. Vanessa says:

    This movie looks extremely corny & predictable why does going to college & having goals make you a loser? The whole thing looks stupid & I wish people would stop comparing it to The Woods or Boyz N the Hood, I bet the nerd gets the girl or realize he has feelings for his boyish looking friend who’s actually a girl

    • ba says:

      “why does going to college & having goals make you a loser”
      THEY IN HIGH SCHOOL! Those types of attitude are common, especially when you go to high school in tougher neighborhoods.

    • chris says:

      I just saw it and I’m telling you know, you couldn’t be any further from the truth. This is NOT a cliche film. It’s possibly the best ‘hood film’ I have seen since the 90’s

  4. Jesse says:

    Good review but they didn’t “decide” to sell the drugs. AJ coerced him by making a thinly veiled threat to Malcolm’s friends and family. You could tell that it wasn’t something he wanted to do. As such the film doesn’t glorify drug dealing.

  5. Amelia says:

    I was very excited for this film, but came away pretty disappointed. The acting was pretty unbearable and a lot of the jokes felt forced. The plot was so meandering with a lot unnecessary scenes. I was bored for much of the film. The ending was also incredibly preachy. It’s all such a shame because I think somewhere in this mess is really great idea for a film, this just wasn’t it.

  6. Spike says:

    more stupid s—t

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