A Review of Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope: A Unique, Smart, and Unexpected High School Movie

Dope movie review
Film: Dope
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Primary Cast: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Zoe Kravitz, A$AP Rocky, Blake Anderson, Quincy Brown, Chanel Iman, Forest Whitaker (narrator)
US Release Date: 19 June 2015

The following review was originally published by Side B Magazine and can be found on their blog, here. 

Malcolm (Moore) is a geek. He loves 90s hip hop, his favorite show is Game of Thrones, and he is in a punk band with his friends, Diggy (Clemons) and Jib (Revolori). Malcolm is a senior in high school and is in the process of applying to Harvard. Malcolm also lives with his single mother in a decidedly rough neighborhood in Inglewood, California.

On his way home from school one day, Malcolm meets a drug dealer named Dom (A$AP Rocky), who asks him to tell a girl down the street named Nakia (Kravitz) that he’s interested in her. Dom also invites Malcolm to his upcoming birthday party.

Eager for a chance to see Nakia again, Malcolm attends Dom’s party with Diggy and Jib. Before the evening is over, things turn suddenly violent. As everyone is fleeing the club, Dom stashes a large amount of molly and a gun in Malcolm’s backpack without telling him. Possessing the illicit items puts Malcolm in a complicated and rather dangerous situation, which he must find a way to navigate his way out of without getting arrested or killed—all while trying to get a girl and gain acceptance into Harvard.

While a film dramatizing the lives of three high school geeks who will soon make their way to college may not sound like a particularly novel endeavor, there is something about Famuyiwa’s Dope that feels very new. In fact, in feeling as new as it does, the film actually helps to shed light on some of the places in which previous films about teenagers and those in high school have been lacking. At the same time, this smartly written and layered film is also thoroughly entertaining. And though it does suffer from some narrative flaws, Dope is just as promising as it is surprising, and it is sure to leave viewers eager to see what Famuyiwa does next. 

Before seeing Dope, I knew almost nothing about it. I knew that it had had a pretty successful time at Sundance, but I hadn’t seen a trailer for it, and I hadn’t read any reviews or synopses either. While these facts may have increased the surprise I felt while watching the film, I find it hard to believe that they were also the source of that surprise. There is something wonderfully unexpected about Dope that goes far beyond any of its individual plot points or characters. Certainly, the fact that it depicts students who are almost exclusively black has something to do with it, but there is even more to it than that. The film is creatively daring and is boldly itself (even when that means running the risk of looking a little odd). Not all of the film’s more out-of-the-box choices work, but many of them do, and all of them help to define its overall personality. It’s unique and, as such, is hard to pin down. Like Malcolm, Dope cannot be reduced to a single fact or adjective, and that is one of the best things about it.

Dope makes for a delightfully different film viewing experience, but how the film sets itself apart is just as important as the fact that it does. Not only does the film focus on characters who are not typically represented in Hollywood, but it also tells their story through something akin to their own eyes. Fumuyiwa’s script and direction do not exploit his young black subjects or their disadvantaged neighborhood for emotional effect. Instead of looking on Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy as an outsider might, Dope presents the world as they know it and with same sort of out-of-place personality that these geeks possess.

The film is not ignorant of the struggles that its protagonist face as a result of their race, class, and neighborhood—on the contrary, it is very much aware of them—but it doesn’t present them in a sensationalized or overly sentimental way. Violence erupts in the film. People die, but life goes on. The film doesn’t linger on its tragic moments, because the kids it depicts cannot afford to. For them, the fact that they could die at any moment just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time is a simple fact. Yes, there is much about life in Inglewood that is devastating, but that doesn’t stop Malcolm from being himself, from enjoying the company of his friends, or from living his life. Similarly, the fact that Dope depicts the harsh reality of Malcolm’s life does not prevent it from evoking far more laughs than it does tears. The film grapples with some very serious topics, but it does so while staying true to itself and without abandoning the more lighthearted mood of the high school movie genre, from which the likes of Malcolm have so often been barred.

Dope presents its setting through the eyes of those who live it each and every day. At the same time, it also presents its main characters as multifaceted people who, though they are undoubtedly influenced by their environment, are first and foremost themselves. Youth is not monolithic and neither is blackness, and Dope is successful in acknowledging both of these facts. The kids who attend Malcolm’s school are diverse—they have range of personalities and hobbies. As Malcolm’s personal statement for his college application makes clear, there is far more to him (and to every black kid) than the way that they are typically represented in popular culture and the media would indicate.

Another place where the film succeeds is in the way it ups the stakes of Malcolm’s dope-related adventure without abandoning its primarily comedic mood. The film establishes the reality of danger and violence early on. Malcolm and his friends live in a world where people can and do get hurt. Because of this, viewers do not have the luxury of resting assured that Dope’s protagonists will make it through the film unscathed. This adds an important dimension of stress and tension to the film that helps to keep it realistic and grounded.

Even if the threat of danger does recede into the background at times, it constantly colors the rest of the film. The realities of Malcolm’s life mean that applying to college, getting a girl, and graduating from high school are all exceedingly more complicated than they would be otherwise, and Dope should be commended for embracing this fact. The film also makes it clear that Malcolm’s world is one in which being a geek is about much more than being good at school or liking certain things—it’s also about a certain (and somewhat dangerous) determination to defy expectations.

Dope’s smart script and Famuyiwa’s creative vision are responsible for the bulk of the film’s success, but its cast deserves some of the credit as well. While none of the performances in Dope are the likely to win awards, several of them are truly memorable. In particular, Shameik Moore and Kiersey Clemons are both quite good. Moore makes for a very lovable lead, and Clemons shows sparks of real talent. I was also pleasantly surprised by A$AP Rocky; his part is not particularly large, but he makes an impact. Unfortunately, I was not as pleased with Kravitz’s work. As Nakia, she is absolutely beautiful, but she also comes off as a bit too wooden to really fit into the film.

Most of Dope’s flaws can be traced to its narrative structure. When it comes to storytelling, the film is a bit too loose and meandering. Some of the plot’s finer details get lost in the shuffle, and some moments are not nearly as interesting as the film overall. Moreover, certain parts of the story (like the relationship between Malcolm and Nakia) are noticeably underdeveloped, and the entire film is a bit longer than it should be. With Dope, Famuyiwa attempts to cover quite a bit of ground and to give viewers a full picture of Malcolm’s life. While his desire to do so is understandable, it all feels like a little too much.

Dope is refreshing, perfectly amusing, and thought-provoking all at once. It probably won’t make any shortlist of my favorite films, and it may not even make my year-end list, but I surely won’t be forgetting it any time soon.

Until Next Time
As always, thanks so much for reading. This site recently had it’s first birthday and I am so thankful for everyone who has visited it in the past year. Words on Films may be small, but I really love having an outlet to talk about movies, and I am excited to see what the next year of this blog’s life brings.

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