From The Breakfast Club to Pretty in Pink, to Mean Girls to Easy A, the familiar formula of nerds having their revenge and defeating the popular guys to rule the school and get the girl is commonplace amongst the ‘coming-of-age’ tales we have come to know love. In fact, every generation has a teen comedy that speaks to them and captures perfectly the growing up experience of the time it was made.
Although at first glance it doesn’t seem like it, Dope, written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, has all the makings of the ‘cult classic’ status that the aforementioned teen movies wear with pride. Striking a deft balance between the serious themes of drugs, violence, crime and social inequality in middle class modern-day America and the hilariously awkward experience of being a teenager trying to worm their way through high school, Dope is as bold as it is ambitious and as brash as it is relatable. Ultimately, Dope is downright fun.
Dope is the story of high school student Malcolm Arakanbe (Shameik Moore), a Nigerian-American straight-A high school student with near perfect SAT scores. Malcolm and his best friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel’s Tony Revolori), are 90’s hip hop geeks who play in a punk band and generally avoid all of the drug-related crime that pretty much runs their hometown Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood. That is, until Malcolm accepts an invitation to the birthday party of mid-level gangster Dom (A$AP Rocky) and accidentally-but-kind-of-on-purpose ends up with a backpack full of drugs, a handgun and a lot of very confusing instructions about sandwiches from some very colourful and dangerous characters.
Although there is a clear trajectory and overall structure within his story, writer and director Famuyiwa’s script is packed to the brim with action, characters, themes and storylines that, at times, seem cramped in Dope’s 103-minute runtime. Indeed, rather than having the plot proceed logically, it seems like Famuyiwa’s screenplay is on occasion more focused on being a mouthpiece for his opinions on everything from race to politics, to perceptions of African-Americans to phone tracking and drone strikes, just to name a few. Whilst this doesn’t detract from the overall action or progression of the film, it is at times distracting, as we are introduced briefly to a host of different themes and characters, none of which really get an adequate amount of screen time to become significant or to really matter to the audience.
Stepping into the film spotlight for the first time, Shameik Moore shines as the geeky yet cool Malcolm. Bringing to life razor sharp dialogue with the skill of an actor more seasoned than his small resume would indicate, Moore’s performance leaves us rooting for Malcolm even as he does questionable things he never dreamed of. Likewise, in their supporting roles, the relatively unknown Kiersey Clemons alongside the now easily recognisable Tony Revolori deliver amusing and energized performances as Malcolm’s two loyally blind and generally thoughtful friends. Together, the three have an effervescent chemistry, lighting up the screen as they talk about your usual teen topics like sex, drugs and college applications. Of particular note is the group’s performance as the punk band Awreeoh (the name will make much more sense once you see them perform). The band’s first live performance at a birthday party, shown to us through fast cut shots of Vines, Dubsmash Videos, Facebook and Twitter feeds, is as catchy and musically adept as those of the big name pop stars you hear on the radio.
In fact, the entire Dope soundtrack, which has been carefully cultivated to reflect Malcolm’s eclectic interests, is one of the more surprising and successful aspects of the film. Featuring new songs from Dope executive producer Pharrell Williams, as well as 90’s staples like Nas, Naughty by Nature and Public Enemy, it truly is a love letter to this era’s hip hop scene that Malcolm and indeed Famuyiwa both have such a reverence for. Crisp and fast paced, Dope’s soundtrack expertly underscores the gritty and raw culture and town, which is also well depicted through Rachel Morrison’s sharp and vibrant cinematography. Morrison, whose previous credits include Cake and Little Accidents, makes expert use of slick widescreen lensing to give the film a uniquely bright and colourful aesthetic, perfectly matching its bold and brash tone and swagger.
Indeed, it is this haphazard mish-mash of genres, styles and culture that are part of Dope’s unique and appealing charm. As it shifts deftly between comedy, drama and satire, Dope mixes themes of romance, crime and growing up to tell a coming-of-age story that is refreshingly original. As such, despite the relatively grim location and circumstances Malcolm, Diggy and Jib find themselves in, the attitude of the characters and indeed the film as a whole is upbeat, uplifting and, ultimately, wildly entertaining. Dope endears itself to the audience with a smart slick tale that makes sure you leave the cinema with a smirk on your face.
Whilst perhaps at times convoluted and chaotic, Dope is exactly the kind of cool and edgy film that teenagers want to see. With its deft blend of humour and pathos, a star-marking performance from newcomer Shameik Moore, and one of the coolest film soundtracks we have heard in a while, Dope is a film with a lot to say, but with not quite enough time to do it. Despite this, the film delivers a refreshing and original take on the typical coming-of-age film by blending it with a tale of crime and redemption that will leave you clapping and laughing with glee as you contemplate just how smart these kids are. Sleek, stylish and indelibly 90’s, Dope is a celebration of everything that was once cool hopefully coming back into style again.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10