7.5 out of 10
Shameik Moore as Malcolm Adenkabi
Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Malcolm Adenkabi (Shameik Moore) is not your typical high school student from Los Angeles’ Inglewood area known as “The Bottoms.” He’s a geeky kid into vintage hip-hop (with a matching hairstyle) while trying to make the grades to make it possible for him to go to Harvard. When he’s invited to the party for a local drugdealer (Tyga), he ends up with a backpack full of drugs and a gun and has to figure out a way to get rid of them.
In this Dope movie review, when it comes to high school coming-of-age comedies, every year produces many new voices often saying the same thing or telling the same stories. With Dope, Rick Famuyiwa gives us a different look at high school through the eyes of a unique character that we just haven’t seen in a movie before.
It’s not that Shameik Moore’s Malcolm Adenkabi is introduced in a particularly interesting way, basically the same first-person narrative we’ve seen as recently as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (another Sundance hit), but it’s Malcolm’s distinct personality and where things take him that make Dope such an interesting entry into an overused genre.
While Malcolm has to deal with bullying at school because he’s such a nerd, he also has to deal with the inherent violence of his ‘hood where someone can get shot by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It doesn’t help that his best friends are equally outcast from the pack, a tomboyish lesbian named Diggy and a Pakistani kid named Jib (played by Tony Revelori, who had such a breakout in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel). When local drugdealer Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky) takes a liking to Malcolm, they find themselves at a club for his birthday. Of course, there’s a girl involved in Malcolm’s decision to attend, in this case the out-of-his-league Nakia, played by Zoe Kravitz, who looks so eerily like her mother these days that you have to do a double take.
After a shootout at the club, Malcolm escapes only to discover that Dom has stashed a large amount of designer drug Molly in his backpack, and much of the second act follows Malcolm and his friends trying to figure out what to do with those drugs. This journey takes them out of “The Bottoms” into a wealthy neighborhood where they encounter two spoiled kids, including a drug-crazed sexpot who comes onto Malcolm and then overdoses on the drugs. Malcolm soon learns their father is an important community leader (and the Harvard alum determines whether Malcolm is Harvard material) who wants nothing to do with Malcolm’s problem.
To be blunt, it’s hard to believe this is the same filmmaker that made the abysmal Our Family Wedding, and I can only imagine that this was a much more personal film with more of a connection to his own interests rather than to a studio marketing department. The strongest aspect of Famuyiwa’s new film is his casting of the three young actors include Moore, all of whom bring an energy and personality to every scene that really makes the movie as enjoyable as it is. Famuyiwa finds many other ways to keep things interesting with the supporting cast, bringing in “Workaholics” star Blake Anderson in a suitably funny role as a stoner who helps Malcolm start-up an online business to get rid of the drugs.
Some of the ideas just don’t work as well, like trying to make us believe a hip-hop enthusiast like Malcolm would front a punk band with his friends, one that plays the most canned and over-produced rock music possible. It’s one of the lamer decisions that really felt like it was being shoehorned into an otherwise decent characterization and plot.
But more than that, the movie delivers a very odd message that doesn’t seem intentional on the filmmaker’s part where it seems to say the only way a young man from L.A.’s worst neighborhood can go to Harvard is to get involved with drugs. That’s the case with Malcolm’s college advisor, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, and ultimately, that’s true for Malcolm as well. So what was Famuyiwa trying to say by creating such an inspirational and uplifting story about essentially an inadvertent drug dealer?
The Bottom Line:
Dope is very funny at times, getting bonus points for giving voice to a very different type of young black character we just haven’t seen in movies. It’s refreshing for sure, but the movie is tonally erratic, leaving the viewer with a mixed message.