Boyz-to-men in the hood
An original, multi-ethnic, multi-genre coming-of-age story
Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope has been getting a lot of favorable attention as unusually lively summer entertainment, a high-spirited youth picture with an earnest streak of contemporary social drama coursing through it.
In some ways, the picture may seem aimed at a somewhat limited and specialized audience—it’s an R-rated endeavor with three geeky high-school seniors as its protagonists; it’s set in a tough Inglewood neighborhood called “The Bottoms”; and it’s heavy on hip-hop and rap, the comic escapades of teenagers straining toward adult freedoms, and the multicultural crossfire among people of color in Southern California.
That somewhat peculiar mixture of film genres and story elements is perplexing at times, but overall the species of freewheeling eclecticism at work in Dope is more virtue than hindrance. Indeed, a big part of this film’s offbeat charm comes of its skill in generating so much broadly appealing comedy and drama out of material that may seem, at first glance, merely formulaic or parochial or both.
The central figure in all this is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a self-proclaimed geek, devotee of 1990s music and fashions, leader of a three-piece rock band that pretends to be “punk,” and straight-A student with his sights set on gaining entrance to Harvard. Malcolm’s mother (Kimberly Elise) makes a living driving city buses; his Nigerian father has completely disappeared from his life, leaving a VHS copy of Superfly as his only legacy.
We meet Malcolm as he’s finishing his senior year of high school, polishing his application to Harvard, dodging the torments of bullying jocks at school and loitering thugs in the neighborhood, and looking for fun with his best buddies and constant companions, Jib (Tony Revolori, the heroic bellboy from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), an openly lesbian waif with a tomboy look.
Malcolm and his two pals are multi-ethnic people of color whose upfront geekiness is part of their bond and part of their strength as individuals. Those aspects of Dope make it a kind of subcultural comedy of manners, and Famuyiwa’s script intermittently broadens the commentary via casual digressions on national issues—Obama’s presidency, drones and “the war on terror,” social media and government surveillance.
But there’s more to Malcolm’s story, and Dope also takes partial shape as a provocative coming-of-age tale. Malcolm stumbles into problematic dalliances with two not-so-innocent young women, a gangbanger’s girlfriend (Zoë Kravitz) and a drug dealer’s daughter (Chanel Iman). And those two rather outlandish peccadilloes lead to an even more outlandish predicament—how to dispose of a gun and a drug shipment that get stashed in his backpack during a raid at a dance club.
Famuyiwa’s sprawling plot resolves itself in somewhat arbitrary and dubious fashion. But Moore’s performance and the Malcolm we see at the very end bespeak hard-won worldliness to go alongside the indefatigable exuberance that has marked him from the beginning.