Dope Review

Spike Lee meets John Hughes in this urban coming-of-age story. Read our review…

Dope was all the rage at this past January’s Sundance Film Festival and it’s easy to see why. The movie has a fresh energy and cast, a willingness to go places where you don’t think it might go, and an earnestness of tone and message that is bracing. It is reminiscent in a lot of ways of Spike Lee’s early work, both in tone and certain stylistic touches, and it also suffers a bit from some of the same tendencies that Lee’s films have as well. But nevertheless, Dope is mostly on the mark, a seriocomic tale that happens to take place in one of the L.A. area’s roughest areas, where “coming of age” can often be about both the innocence of going to the prom and the futility of getting mixed up with the local gang.

Both of those events are part of the life of Malcolm (an excellent Shameik Moore), a straight-A student who wants to do well on his SATs and get into Harvard so he can escape the Bottoms, the tough part of Inglewood in which he and his mother live. Malcolm and his two friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) are geeks who like to play in a punk rock band, debate the merits of ‘90s hip-hop and try to stay out of trouble. But trouble finds them when Malcolm, crushing on a local girl named Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), hesitantly agrees to attend a birthday party for drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky). When a police raid on the party ends in a shootout, Malcolm escapes only to find that Dom has stuffed a stash of drugs into his backpack.

A jailed Dom soon instructs Malcolm to return the drugs to their rightful owner – whose identity proves to be a shock and a wake-up call of sorts to Malcolm — but the owner doesn’t want them back either: he wants Malcolm and his friends to move them and pay him the cash. Thus begins a quest involving a black market website, Bitcoin, gangstas, businessmen, the police and a sexy but druggy siren who offers to take Malcolm’s virginity but ends up doing something much more unspeakable.

Dope’s strongest element is its cast and characters. Malcolm starts out seeming nerdy and naïve, but slowly unveils determination and a steely core, while Clemons’ androgynous lesbian Diggy is luminous and appealing without her sexuality being her dominant defining trait. Rocky is also quite formidable as Dom, who starts out as the film’s ostensible villain but also comes off as much more than he initially seems. His intelligence and sense of humor are part of him but never hide the cold reality of what he does for a living and how he violently attains his goals. Every character goes against the grain to some degree, right down to Chanel Iman as the sexpot who can’t keep it together long enough to successfully seduce our hero, and the movie’s biggest success is in going against stereotypes.

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For its first half, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa moves his actors smoothly through the mechanics of the plot, nicely balancing humor and darkness (one of the film’s earliest moments shows the tragic and utterly random fate of another overachieving student at Malcolm’s school) while getting us to care about these characters. But when Malcolm hatches a plan to sell the drugs online, using Bitcoin as the currency, the movie goes somewhat off the rails. The caper seems wildly unrealistic, the script spends too much time on how the actual operation is set up, and the movie becomes more about exposition and lectures, both of which stop its easygoing energy in its tracks (something that hurts some of those Spike Lee joints alluded to earlier).

The film partially redeems itself toward the end, although the resolution of the plot is way too dependent on IT than character to really feel like a strong payoff. It also wraps up everything up a bit too neatly considering that we get the sense earlier in the film that Malcolm and his friends could be in real danger, a dramatic touch that never quite regains its sense of urgency. But even though Dope becomes unwieldy, the overall unique feel of the film, the sparkle of the cast (especially future movie star Moore), a great soundtrack and the intimate, confident way in which the director brings us into the neighborhood all make for an entertaining and meaningful experience.


3.5 out of 5