After its buzzy Sundance premiere and $7 million sale to Open
Road Films, expectations for Rick Famuyiwa’s “Dope” were high.
Surprisingly, the movie’s plot and characters are a lot like every teen comedy:
a nerd crosses paths with a tough guy, which gets him into an unexpected jam, which
leads to a wild adventure, which helps him grow wiser and more confident, while
managing to get the girl along the way. The place where the film innovates is
in its mash-up of visual styles. From the first scene it’s clear that “Dope”
wants to assault senses, feeding into 1990s nostalgia while catering to the
short attention span of an internet-addicted generation. Like a Lisa Frank
Trapper Keeper, it’s intentionally all over the place.
Anyone who saw Famuyiwa’s previous films like “The
Wood” and “Brown Sugar” knows his affinity for the ’90s and hip
hop culture. But instead of flashbacks or a full-fledged period piece, here he
casts main character Malcolm (Shameik Moore) as a ’90s-obsessed teen, which
allows for all the fun of the past while keeping the movie’s cultural
references grounded in the present. Naughty By Nature, Cross Colours clothing
and Malcolm’s high top fade live alongside YouTube and Donald Glover jokes.
Flanked by his equally nerdy pals Diggy and Jib (Kiersey
Clemmons and Tony Revolori), Malcolm struggles to survive his gang infested Inglewood
neighborhood long enough to graduate and attend his dream college (Harvard, of
course). When the friendly neighborhood drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) invites Malcolm
to a birthday party, it sets the group on a dangerous adventure through the
streets of Los Angeles.
It’s a truly LA story (after all, DeAundre Bonds is in it)
and darts between the city’s starkly different neighborhoods and characters
with ease. This is also where the movie shows who it’s after, with celebrity
cameos galore. A$AP Rocky and love interest Zoe Kravitz play the characters we
all imagine them to be in real life – equal parts street savvy and
sophistication, and effortless cool. Model Chanel Iman appears briefly for sex
appeal and comic relief purposes, and not much else. Most of the characters are
footnotes in Malcolm’s journey, there to present various Wonderland-esque
challenges which only grow more extreme and ridiculous as the story goes on.
The movie isn’t concerned with thwarting teen comedy
conventions so much as updating them. What might have been a tomboy and foreign
exchange student 20 years ago become a full-blown lesbian and Indian American
who identifies with black culture. But the bullies are just as mean, the adults
just as clueless; it’s still tough to be a nerd and virginity is still regarded
as the most shameful thing on the planet. It’s still high school.
As for social commentary, Famuyiwa’s voice resonates best in
his observations of race and class. Within the wacky narrative, he weaves in
conversations about drone strikes and the failings of the public school system.
Then there’s the overall theme of racial identity. This is the era of the blerd after all, with so much of our
content – from “black-ish” to “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward
Black Girl” to “Black Folk Don’t” – aimed at shutting down stereotyped
notions of what it means to be black. “Dope” gives us the
wide-release feature film version of that, with its hero Malcolm straddling
both sides of the fence as hip hop and punk, “disadvantaged youth”
If there’s one specific message to “Dope,” it’s
that you can be everything, all at once. The message is delivered in the
politics of Malcolm’s identity as well as the mish-mash of eras and visual
styles. The movie’s approach of throwing everything at the screen could be
overwhelming to some, but it essentially caters to a generation that has seen it
all, all the time, on multiple electronic devices. Bottom line: it’s a fun film
that should give young audiences everything they want from a teen movie in a
package that’s just flashy enough to hold their attention.
“Dope” is due in theaters on June 19.