So many movies play it safe and predictable that you have to give it up to “Dope” for making consistently bold moves — even if they don’t always pay off. This vibrant film is a bit of a mess, but it’s a beautiful one.
Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa (“The Wood”) gives us three unique, eccentric, fresh adolescent characters who don’t feel like the usual teen-movie archetypes — and then he almost immediately plunges them into shootouts and drug deals that feel crushingly familiar. “Dope” clearly wants to mix “Risky Business” and the John Hughes oeuvre with the 1990s milieu of “Boyz n the Hood” and the many films it inspired. But while there’s no reason that combo couldn’t work, Famuyiwa doesn’t quite nail the proportions.
The ’90s are a recurring touchstone here, with our heroes Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons, “Transparent”) and Jib (Tony Revolori, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) obsessed over the decade and its music and its fashions, from their stack of “Yo! MTV Raps” VHS cassettes to the top of Malcolm’s Kid n Play hairdo. As narrator Forest Whitaker (who also produced) points out, these three are outcasts in their Inglewood high school, both for their anachronistic affectations and for their desire to make good grades and go to college.
It’s in that opening narration where Famuyiwa establishes his go-for-broke intentions toward the film’s tone: Whitaker tells us about another nerdy kid who got shot during a restaurant hold-up and the camera shows the victim’s bloody GameBoy while Whitaker notes that, ironically, he was just a few points shy of the high score. That’s a pretty ballsy opening salvo, promising a tightrope walk between dark comedy and realistic suffering. Unfortunately, “Dope” can’t maintain that balance.
Malcolm is forced to shuttle romantic messages between local drug dealer Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky) and his estranged girlfriend Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), eventually becoming smitten with her himself despite the inherent danger involved. Malcolm’s willingness to go whither Nakia goest eventually lands Malcolm and his friends possession of Dom’s satchel, which holds a large amount of an ecstasy-like drug that seemingly everyone in Inglewood wants.
The characters here are too interesting (or at least potentially interesting) to get caught up in yet another bag-of-drugs plot. Diggy, for example, is a baby butch lesbian whose androgyny confuses men and enchants a series of women, while Dom balances cold intelligence, a dry wit and a propensity for ruthless violence in the way of the great screen villains. But once “Dope” goes off on long tangents explaining how Bitcoin works (it’s part of how our heroes wind up selling the drugs online), it’s clear that the movie has somewhat lost its way.
Still, Famuyiwa brings such vitality to the production that it’s hard not to get absorbed, even when the story’s initial promise gets wrapped up unsatisfactorily — or rather, too satisfactorily, with all the complicated and random odds and ends tied up in a neat bow. Tom Cruise‘s character in “Risky Business” manages to get into Princeton, yes, but at least there’s still that crack in the Faberge egg.
(Side tangent: after “Dope” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” can filmmakers please retire the framing device of the college application essay, at least for a while? It’s so overused that the trope has become the new “…and that was the summer that changed everything.”)
If nothing else, “Dope” is the movie that turned Shameik Moore into a leading man, and here’s hoping the industry finds more characters this interesting for him to play. He’s charismatic and engaging (I would have loved more scenes between Moore and the underutilized Kimberly Elise, who plays Malcolm’s bus-driver mom), and he brings the kind of wit, energy and sheer movie magnetism that heralds an interesting career ahead.