Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Counter-culture comedies like “Juno,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” and anything by Wes Anderson are becoming popular in the new hipster generation. Teenage and twenty-something characters who rebel against societal norms are endearing to moviegoers, but the genre has been missing something until now—a minority protagonist. Enter “Dope,” writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s most poignant (and least “Hollywood”) examination of black culture.
In Inglewood, California, you can be shot just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his best friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are self-proclaimed geeks. They’re obsessed with ‘90s hip-hop culture and skateboarding. They’re trying to get into college based on grades alone, not on an athletic scholarship like so many of their black peers. They’re comfortable in their perceived whiteness, while trying to redefine what it means to be black. They’re not interested in the lives their classmates are leading. But when a new thuggish acquaintance (A$AP Rocky) invites Malcolm and his friends to the club for his birthday party, and a mix-up leaves Malcolm dealing with gangsters, they’ll be thrown into the very culture they have spent their whole lives trying to avoid. They’ll have to use their own particular set of skills to figure out how to navigate the gangster life that has been so swiftly thrust upon them.
In his first starring role, Moore gives a transcendent performance that tries to speak to a new generation of black youth. In his Harvard application essay, Malcolm asks “Why do I want to go to Harvard? If I was white, would you even have to ask me that question?” It’s a punctuation mark for a whole movie of a young man trying to show that he’s not like the Bloods he sees on the street every day. Revolori, who earned a Broadcast Film Critics nomination for his supporting role in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” shows once again how he can set himself apart from other teen actors with similar experience. He has maturity beyond his years. And in her first film, Clemons shows she’s cut out for more than television shows, even the critically acclaimed “Transparent.”
“Dope” could be better, though. It might have spent more time tightening up its script, which can get off track at times. And while the crime-comedy is both exciting and funny, it could have been more of either. It never decided what it wanted to be, then got really preachy at the end. The point was well made throughout, but Famuyiwa didn’t want you to forget. But at the end of the day, “Dope” is an unpredictable and surprising summer hit. There’s not much to complain about here.