by Ken Bakely
Rick Famuyiwa is a man on a mission in his new film, Dope, and that quest is to make something more than just the by-the-numbers kind of coming-of-age movie that his story could have been turned into. His screenplay bristles with observations on racial and socioeconomic stereotypes, as well as full-bellied laughs and is capped off with strong performances. While kept from greatness due to a poorly organized story structure which keeps things from rolling in a tight, economic manner, Famuyiwa has a solid, guiding hand over his film, and makes sure that the 102 minutes we spend in is world are enjoyable and decently entertaining, faults aside.
Shameik Moore stars as Malcolm, a high school senior living in a lower-class neighborhood of Inglewood, California. Malcolm, and best friends James a.k.a. “Jib” (Tony Revolori) and Cassandra a.k.a. “Diggy” (Kiersey Clemons), are obsessed with the hip hop culture of the late ‘90s. When the trio walks down the street together, you could have sworn they just walked out of a time machine. They’re a bright group, but Malcolm is especially intelligent – something society doesn’t expect from a poor black kid raised by a single mom. Our protagonist has his eyes set on attending Harvard University, and with his perfect grades and raw ambition, he might have a chance if the stars align correctly. However, a bizarre twist of events lead our hero to a time sensitive problem: A drug dealer (A$AP Rocky)’s huge stash of MDMA has found its way into Malcolm’s backpack. With the police, as well as rival dealers, always a step away, Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib need to get rid of the drugs by any means necessary.
Famuyiwa’s script juggles a lot of subplots and themes over its 102 minute runtime, revealing an energetic, vivid intent from the first few scenes. The writing is on-point from scene to scene as well – not only is the dialogue sharp and witty; Dope is a rare example of screenwriting which can depict contemporary (c. mid-2010s) Internet culture and terminology without sounding like it was written by someone who has never touched a computer before – from an explanation of Bitcoin (which becomes critical to the plot) to the steady evolution of a meme, there’s a level of believability few other writers can replicate in that respect.
But the writing suffers from some drawbacks as well. Dope has a problem nailing down a rhythm and tone – Famuyiwa tries everything, from grisly gallows humor (a recollection of a nerdy kid being caught in the crossfires of a gang shooting and collapsing to the ground with his handheld game console covered in blood) to gross-out comedy, in another memorable scene where a drugged-out woman vomits directly onto Malcolm’s face. Additionally, when the film ditches the jokes and tries to make serious points, the newfound approach to the story seems wildly out-of-place, and an otherwise legitimate message conveyed in the final fifteen minutes feels a bit hackneyed and overbearing.
These are the things which prevent Dope from reaching the higher echelons of quality, despite having an abundance of whip-smart dialogue and some thoroughly compelling performances (especially Moore’s, who is overflowing with screen presence). Ultimately, Famuyiwa is a very capable director who can bring the most out of a diverse set of actors, but may need a bit of help in the writing department, at least as far as compiling the general outline and momentum of the plot. It’s this missing component that really adds up, and denies the movie from uniting its otherwise capable facilities and producing something more vibrant and meaningful.