Published Jun 19, 2015Every nostalgic teenager wishes parts of their present were more like the past, and Malcolm (rising star Shameik Moore) — the lead character in director Rick Famuyiwa's energetic and ambitious coming-of-age dramedy Dope — is no different.
He's a hip-hop head who longs for its "Golden Age" (the early '90s), digs Digable Planets, always keeps his hi-tops high and studies Yo! MTV Raps tapes like the show never went out of style. He's a charismatic character, and a straight-A student, surrounded by a merry crew of academically inclined misfits (played by Kiersey Clemons and The Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori), trying to get out of Inglewood and into an Ivy League school.
So when a local drug dealer named Dom (Rakim Mayers, aka A$AP Rocky, in his first major acting role) befriends Malcolm, we know something terrible is about to go down. After being invited to Dom's birthday party and barely making it out alive, Malcolm discovers he's accidentally gained possession of millions of dollars' worth of MDMA, and that the only way to keep himself, his family and friends alive is to sell it.
Dope has a fairly straightforward premise, but Famuyiwa fills it with so many side stories, twists in genre and auxiliary characters that it's downright intoxicating and at times hard to keep up with. But underneath all the madcap antics and hijinks, there's an extremely poignant picture here detailing how young people deal with identity, race and expectations in modern America.
Dope seems to toe the line cinematically between the fun and frivolity of the Friday series and the seriousness of a Spike Lee Joint. When the film acts like the former, the whole thing can be a bit much, especially when it comes to scenes involving ample amounts of nudity, subplots that seem to have no purpose other than making you feel side-tracked and riffs on modern culture that distinctly tie it to 2015 and make the whole film feel less stylish in the process (Bitcoins and auto-tuned memes, anyone?). Famuyiwa is trying to make a timeless picture here, but more often than not, it feels too of its time.
There's a reason why Dope was such a sensation at Sundance this year. There's a lot of heart in the movie, even when it's masking its earnest sentiments and thought-provoking moments with stupid jokes about Molly and filling space with Blake Anderson. Famuyiwa is such a good filmmaker that he gets his point across far before the action really kicks in, which makes you wonder what this movie would have been like had he not been so concerned with the filmmakers and movies that came before it.