★★★ / ★★★★
“Dope,” written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, is a frenetic, fun, and swaggering piece of work with a killer soundtrack as icing. Some movies are meant to be evaluated by the energy it puts forth rather than plot or characterization. This film belongs in that category; it is mainly about what we see and hear rather than what it makes us think about or feel. Thus, it likens that of an extended music video—but one that earns the majority of its hundred-minute running time.
The story takes place in the part of Inglewood, California known as “The Bottoms.” The neighborhood is so dangerous, the protagonist claims that on a bad day, one may find himself shot at a store or restaurant for no reason at all. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Dig (Kiersey Clemons), are high school seniors who find themselves with a bag full of MDMA after a police raid during a drug dealer’s birthday party (A$AP Rocky). Initially, they thought getting rid of the drugs would be fairly straightforward: Simply hand it over to its rightful owner. However, the solution is far more difficult and it involves risking their futures.
The three friends are interesting even though we never get to know them fully. They are obsessed with ‘90s hip-hop culture and so they tend to dress and talk as if they were living in the past. They label themselves as geeks and they are treated accordingly. And yet the irony is that in our eyes, they are probably the coolest kids around. There is something attractive and worth rooting for in the fact that they are proud of who they are and what they wish to represent. For instance, they have a lot of pride in not being athletes or being a part of a gang. The screenplay is doubly smart in acknowledging the stereotype of kids living in a bad neighborhood and subverting our expectations.
It takes some time to achieve blastoff because it appears to branch out in several directions. But look more closely. Although the liftoff seems a bit low on speed, it is actually quite efficient. From the moment that bag of dope ends up in Malcolm’s hands, the succeeding scenes are devoted to getting rid of it. Significant amount of tension is never generated because the picture is teeming with comedic touches, subtle and overt, but it does not need to. This is not a thriller and we are never supposed to doubt that by the end the teenagers would be all right.
The film offers a few moments of tenderness, particularly with the interactions between Malcolm and the drug dealer’s sort-of girlfriend (Zoë Kravitz). The work would have been a level stronger, however, if Nakia had been explored further. She and Malcolm share a commonality of not wanting to be a product of their environment. Sometimes she looks at Malcolm and we wonder what she is thinking exactly. Kravitz knows how to lure in the viewer.
“Dope” has a vision and exudes infectious energy to deliver the goods. A lot of movies that fall within the sub-genre of growing up in a dangerous neighborhood has only one or neither of these qualities. To top it off, it has the pride not to impart a sentimental lesson.