Dope (2015)

dope-posterWritten & Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa

Setting: Inglewood, California

Recommended by: Wendell Ottley

One of the perks of being an inveterate nerd, as I learned during my tenure in high school, is that it’s effective camouflage.

No one expects you to step off the straight and narrow, so when you do — no matter what kind of ridiculous antics you’re up to — people are blind to it.

Malcolm (Shameik Moore), college-bound high school senior, straight-A student, and self-taught musician, and his two best friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), spend much of their time evading gangsters and other bullies in their crime-riddled neighborhood. Malcolm loves 90’s hip hop music and culture and knows a fair amount about computer technology.

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Malcolm is clearly an exceptionally smart guy, but even smart teens can be derailed by hormones and poor judgment. And so it comes to pass that he and his buddies attend a party hosted by Dom (A$ap Rocky), a neighborhood drug dealer, so he can see a girl he fancies.

The party is crashed by rival drug dealers, and the next day Malcolm finds drugs and a gun in his backpack. He scrambles to divest himself of the drugs, without getting killed, and maybe turn the situation to his advantage.

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This is the most fun I’ve had watching a movie in a long time. The realities of life in a tough neighborhood are handled with humor, yet they are never trivialized. We see what Malcolm is up against, but it’s revealed, for the most part, through gentle satire — it isn’t heavy-handed or preachy.

Malcolm is caught between two stereotypes. As a nerd, he can set off the metal detector and rouse the drug sniffing dog while entering the school building without arousing suspicion. And his foray into a world of illicit drugs and loaded weapons conjures negative stereotypes of young black males, a perception that could easily play a role in destroying his life if things go wrong.

Exploring stereotypes in a playful way is a recurring theme throughout the movie. The film also has a go at various aspects of popular culture, from coffee shops to internet memes.

One of the strongest aspects of the film is the dialogue. It’s smart and funny and it often goes off on tangents in an almost Tarantinoesque manner. I love the fact that wherever he goes, and no matter what kind of peril he is in, Malcolm finds opportunities to debate about music. And Dom is a particularly articulate thug who provides hilarious repartee. As Wendell pointed out, he isn’t likable — nor should he be — but he’s much more than a stock street criminal.

The tone of the movie varies wildly: alternately witty, serious, and over-the-top zany. For the most part, these transitions work. But at times they’re jarring and, as my son put it, make the movie seem a bit convoluted.

The best parts, for me, kept the story within the bounds of plausibility and relied heavily on verbal wit. This is a clever, entertaining film, and a good one to watch with mature teens — if you’re OK with strong language, nudity and some violence — both for fun and as an opportunity to discuss stereotypes and the role race and socioeconomic status play in people’s perceptions. It is smart and original and definitely one of my favorite movies of the year.

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