First, let’s get this out of the way. Dope is a good movie. It is enjoyable, watchable and sweet.
But it is also so sweet that if it were a drink, it would be a hipster, artisan rum punch drowning in simple syrup. And it ties up so neatly—despite all of its early wit and menace—that it almost turns into a sunny after-school special.
It wants to be both quirky and hard, and it probably goes on a few beats too long, milking too much mileage out of the n-word, but it’s worth it, if only as a dedication to all the black and brown kids growing up in the hood, who are not necessarily of the hood.
In inner-city life on film and in literature, the focus has always been on the Bigger Thomases—those imposing, doomed young men who get caught up in the system at an early age—ending up in prison or dead. But what about all the other kids who don’t fit the prototypical thug mode, that silent majority of goofy kids, loners, nerds, outsiders, geeks and weirdos, who don’t fit in anywhere and seek solace in nostalgia or sci-fi? They’re in the hood, too, dodging Bigger in hopes that he won’t steal their sneakers again.
Set in inner-city Los Angeles and written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, Dope is a neat, little coming-of-age fairy tale set in the middle of an urban fable. In its lighthearted premise—a nerdy, sweet boy who loves ’90s hip-hop, high-top fades, skateboards, punk rock and cassette tapes—lies a dark world where even if you’re a goofy nerd, if you are black or brown, you, too, can get caught up via gangs, drugs, stereotypes, crappy public schools, poverty and gunplay.
Your backpack won’t protect you.
Being “different,” as main character Malcolm (Shameik Moore) sees himself, just makes you more of a target. For jocks. Bullies. Drug dealers. Gangbangers. Your options are fight or flee with an added option of “or die” on the streets of Dope.
About that “or die.” “Or die” is the third rail in Malcolm’s world. It co-exists in the same world where he wants to go to Harvard, lives with his single-parent mom (Kimberly Elise), crushes on the elusive pretty girl (Zoë Kravitz) and plays in his punk rock band, Oreo, with his best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori).
Over and over, the movie forces Malcolm and his friends to make adult choices when they are only a gaggle of impressionable, horny high schoolers. Often, one of the choices points to potential demise. Help the drug dealer get the girl or die. Stay at home alone or go to the party and die. Sell this dope or die. No matter that Malcolm is a goofy teen; he’s expected to figure out these life-or-death situations, without parents and with help never coming, knowing that black geeks like him have been murdered on the streets of L.A. for much less.
The plot of Dope is fairly simple, but with some new twists to keep you going. Malcolm ends up being pressured into helping drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) get the attention of Kravitz’s character, Nakia. Dom, using Malcolm as his Cyrano de Bergerac, invites Nakia to his party, and Nakia, flirting with Malcolm, says she will go if Malcolm will be there. Malcolm, of course, now wants to attend this party even though it is a drug-dealer party and he probably shouldn’t go. But the power of boners—so strong that they have led many a teenager (and grown man) to his downfall–wins out. He goes to the party and we’re introduced to an impromptu SAT-prep meditation via A$AP Rocky to the common colloquialism “slippery slope.”
“Slippery slope” is the recurring leitmotif of the film, explaining how one bad decision can lead to multiple, unforeseen bad situations. By going to the party, Malcolm inadvertently is present during a backdoor drug deal. That deal goes bad, violence erupts and in the confusion, suddenly Malcolm is left holding the bag, a literal bag of dope—the party drug Molly.
What happens next all revolves around Malcolm and his friends’ desperation to get rid of the dope by any means necessary so they can return to just being goofy kids with collegiate dreams.
Dope is not House Party. It’s also not Ice Cube and Chris Tucker’s Friday. And that’s OK. It’s wonderfully its own thing, similar to previous friend-based Famuyiwa outings like Brown Sugar and The Wood.
It’s not wall-to-wall laughs; nor is it a typical drug comedy—although several bits in Dope do get good chuckles. And it’s not always fun, considering all the times someone threatens to shoot, gets shot or pulls out a gun in this film. But that realism—which actually sets the film apart in its willingness to show the peril many kids growing up in the hood feel—gets dashed for a formulaic ending that runs a bit too long, wraps everything up too neatly and leaves you wondering how anyone could get out clean in a game so dirty.
But real life is downer enough, so give us some Dope. Even if it’s too cute to be cool, we need to get high.
Also on The Root: “Rick Famuyiwa: A Dope Director”