High school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) bond over '90s hip-hop culture, their studies, and playing music in their own punk band; “the shit white people like”, as the film puts it. However, their mundane lives change when a chance encounter with a drug dealer named Dom lands Malcolm and company at the dealer's nightclub birthday party. When the scene turns violent, they flee, not knowing that they carry on them the drug called “Molly” which Dom secretly hid in Malcolm's backpack. A wild adventure ensues as the youths try to evade armed thugs who want their stash back.
In a way, Dope is Boyz ‘n the Hood meets Risky Business, and while the film doesn’t match the cinematic heights of those two films, this is still a fun, enjoyable and heart-warming gem from writer/director Rick Famuyiwa that leaves you with a smile on your face by the end. What he manages to do well is make you bond and relate to these three kids, and while their antics may be questionable at times, you still find yourself rooting for them and hoping that they succeed in their own lives in this coming-of-age tale.
Shameik Moore gives what can only be described as a breakout performance, containing the real screen charisma and charming likeability that Cuba Gooding Jr. had when he started out. Kiersey Clemons gives a sparky, scene-stealing performance, and Tony Revolori (last seen wearing a bellboy uniform in The Grand Budapest Hotel) is humorously quirky and deadpan. Together, the trio make for divertingly offbeat company, yet their company never becomes tiring nor irksome. The supporting cast are all credibly solid, with Roger Guenveur Smith being creepily sinister and Zoë Kravitz giving a naturalistic performance.
Like many movies before it, this makes the geeks/underdogs/outcasts the real human voices and heroes of the story, whilst also making the message of achieving a better life despite how quirky or offbeat your likes and interests are. Sure, many movies have pulled this off countless times before, but here, that concept is to told in a fresh, vibrant and almost naturalistic fashion. This harks back to those inner-city-set gangsta films of the ‘90s, like Boyz ‘n the Hood, Straight Out of Brooklyn and Dead Presidents, but with much less violence and way more laughs.
The movie uses humour as a way to add entertainment value to the story, yet it’s also used in a unique way in order of approaching and tackling some very important issues, including ongoing problems in the inner cities, class discrimination and the use of labels in their society at large. Those topics are told in a very populist manner, but that is one of the film’s strengths as it manages to make itself accessible for today’s modern audience. The film’s colour palette is brilliantly retro and vibrant with Rachel Morrison’s cinematography capturing a genuine ‘90s flavour to the surroundings and fashion sense.
True, the film isn’t entirely 100% original, and sure there are certain writing/plot issues here and there, but Dope is an entertaining, pop-culture-littered, coming-of-age story with likeable performances (particularly the main trio) and a story that is sharp and humorous. It's undoubtedly rough around the edges, but that doesn’t stop it from being irresistible.
DOPE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: RICK FAMUYIWA / STARRING: SHAMEIK MOORE, TONY REVOLORI, KIERSEY CLEMONS, RAKIM MAYERS / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 28TH