Arriving in Brisbane cinemas will little fanfare, Dope is the type of movie that should be chasing and securing a much larger audience, particularly amongst younger viewers. With a killer soundtrack, the likes of Pharrell Williams and Sean “P Diddy” Combs serving as executive producers and a talented young cast, this is very much a film for the hip-hop generation, if only they knew about it. Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, Dope is a coming-of-age comedy/drama set in the Darby-Dixon neighbourhood of Inglewood (California), known colloquially as the The Bottoms. This part of greater Los Angeles comprises more than 90% African-American and Hispanic residents and the percentage of families in Inglewood living below the poverty line is twice the national average. In this world in which dodging gangs and drug dealers is part of the daily commute to and from school, super-smart geeky high school senior Malcolm is determined to escape a fate to which so many have succumbed.
Despite being told by his school principal that he is arrogant for daring to dream of securing a place at Harvard, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) seems on track to achieve his goal until a decision to attend an underground party – ostensibly to impress the girlfriend of local dealer Dom (a solid acting debut from rapper A$AP Rocky) – puts him and his loyal friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemens) and Jib (Tony Revolori) in the firing line, both literally and figuratively. When our plucky trio, who share a love of ‘90’s hop-hop, inexplicably find themselves laden with a drug consignment, their lives become a series of misadventures as they hustle to stay one step ahead of those looking to do them some serious harm. As such, the film bounces between moments of mirth and menace, often leaving you no time to catch your breath from laughter before something quite serious, and often violent, takes place. Some people may find this disconcerting but it effectively demonstrates the dichotomy of living in such circumstances.
They encounter myriad offbeat characters in their efforts to offload their cargo, including the duplicitous Austin Jacoby (Roger Smith) and his very odd offspring Jaleel (Quincy Brown) – a delusional wannabe music producer – and the bored, brazen, bonkers Lily (Chanel Iman). As much as Lily’s character seems just too over-the-top, all is forgiven when her antics result in a When Harry Met Sally-style “I’ll have what she’s having” spontaneous viral marketing campaign that sends demand for Malcolm’s supply through the roof and probably isn’t too far removed from the realities of how You Tube and the like influence attitudes and behaviours. Through it all, the bond between Malcolm, Diggy and Jib never waivers and although they present a positive affirmation of the power of friendship in overcoming adversity, the film never becomes overly sentimental or trite in its portrayal of this trio of misfits. They are essentially good kids caught in a bad situation who use their smarts to get themselves out of trouble.
The film hinges on the performance of Moore in his first feature film lead role and he handles the responsibility with aplomb for the most part, stumbling only in a moment of intimate verbal intercourse with Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), the femme whose flirtations set the series of events in motion. Following his breakout performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Revolori is fabulous again as Jib, while Clemens makes a terrific transition from television to the big screen as Diggy. Keith Stanfield, so good in Short Term 12 that he already has another 10 features under his belt, also features. Along the way, Dope finds time to explore the murky world of the dark web, skewer the white appropriation of black culture – primarily through comedian Blake Anderson’s turn as hacker/stoner Will – and take aim at the failings of the education system, but the film is never preachy or condescending and refuses to take sides in any moral debate that surrounds the course of action that Malcolm and his sidekicks ultimately undertake. Although Famuyiwa has fallen into the trap that has ensnared so many of his contemporaries – underestimating the intelligence of the audience by relying on an unnecessary voiceover (courtesy of Forrest Whittaker in this instance) – there is much to like here, not the least of which is Rachel Morrison’s cinematography. Energy and wit abound in this story about a determination to succeed despite the forces that conspire to hold you back. Dope is, well, pretty dope, so catch it while you can.