When I refer to something as an indie movie, I don’t necessarily mean a movie that is independently funded outside the Hollywood system. If I meant that, I’d call them Independent Movies. I mean a style and an attitude that defines Indie Movies. Wes Anderson’s movies frequently include everyone from Tilda Swinton to Bruce Willis, but his movies are still indie movies. At the same time, Tyler Perry may write, direct, produce and star in his movies, but I still wouldn’t identify them as Indie Movies.
I should probably mention that the Indie label isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s just a way of classifying a movie; Indie movies have appeared on both my best and worst of the year in the past, and have also been mediocre enough to not merit either. I merely say all this because, despite the fact that director Rick Famuyiwa has been working since 1999, Dope has a distinctly indie feel to it. I don’t know much about it’s production or background, (I only heard of the thing a few weeks ago) but it reads like an indie movie.
The plot is centered around Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school senior who, along with his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori, who some of you might recognize from The Grand Budapest Hotel) is a 90s hip-hop obsessed geek, growing up in a section of Inglewood, CA colorfully known as The Bottoms. He is, of course, being raised by a single mother and never knew his father, although he has excellent grades, plays in a punk rock band with his friends (Awreeoh, pronounced Oreo) and aspires to go to Harvard
In order to avoid trouble, Malcolm ends up acting as a go between for a drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), and winds up with an invitation to Dom’s birthday party. When the police raid the party, Dom stuff’s Malcolm’s backpack full of a new type of MDMA without him knowing to get it out. As you can imagine, this is an issue for Malcolm, as he needs to find a way to get rid of the drugs before he gets arrested and kills his chances at college.
The degree to which Dope works is based almost entirely on how good its characters and situations are. It’s a little rough at time and there are probably more subplots than it’s relatively short runtime can handle, but the characters ring exceptionally true, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out many of the plot points were based on the writers or directors actual experiences.
The main burden of the story is on Shameik’s shoulders to carry (although sporadic narration from Forest Whitaker certainly helps) and he’s definitely up to the challenge, sporting a ridiculous haircut and out of date clothing, but he finds the humanity at the center of the character, and despite something of a cliched background, he never feels like a cliche.
Also excellent is Kiersey Clemons as Diggy. She’s got an interesting character, and fantastic comic timing. Tony Revolori tends toward fading into the background (which I think was the point of his role in Grand Budapest Hotel but nevermind) but he’s still a good presence, even as Kiersey and Shameik hog most of the spotlight. Zoe Kravitz is a little weaker, although her relative lack of screentime might be causing that.
Aside from the characters, one of the more interesting elements is the editing. I know I don’t usually bring it up, but there seems to be an intentional effort to draw attention to it. One of the standout sequences in the second act involves a montage of a growing social media presence of the drug Malcolm needs to get rid of.
Outside of those elements, the film is rarely perfect but always competent. The writing is solid, consistently funny and often hilarious, the direction is pretty good throughout, favoring long shots and montages. It should also be noted it contains one of the more believable examples of a fake meme in modern media, probably even better than the one in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Unfortunately it’s been a while since I’ve seen a perfect movie, and Dope is no exception. Most notably (as I eluded to earlier), I feel like the plot is on the overstuffed side. The film has musings on race, class, outsiders perception of same, bitcoins, drug culture, even gender and gay rights (Diggy is a lesbian) and the movie doesn’t necessarily have room to really give all of these subjects the attention they deserve.
While Dope is a little on the uneven side, and it’s awkwardly paced at times (the first act is on the long side and the movie goes on a bit long), it’s appealing unique and outright hilarious throughout. If you’re looking for a great comedy, or even just something good to see in theaters right now and you’ve already seen Mad Max 4 times (like me…not a lot good this summer) then Dope is definitely the movie for you.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he finds it ironic that Malcolm was writing an essay about Ice Cube, given that a trailer for an NWA biopic played right before the movie.
– consistently funny throughout
– Shameik and Kiersey are fantastic
– great editing and direction
– slightly awkward pacing
– movie is a tiny bit overstuffed