Don’t you just love when you think you’ll dig a movie and it turns out even better than you expected? That’s the joy of watching smaller films and writing about them on our little corners of the internet like many of us do. Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope is that movie for me right now and damn it’s fantastic.
Anyone who knows me or reads this blog on a regular basis will know that I have a big soft spot for ridiculous, somewhat obscure 80s coming of age movies. Spring Break is probably the best of the bunch as far as I’m concerned. When I first saw the trailer for Dope, I thought it looked like it would be in line with those movies, or maybe more like Adventures In Babysitting, that kind of thing. In a way, I was right, but it many other important ways, this movie is so much more. The plot follows a trio of high school geeks living in Inglewood, CA who love 90s hip-hop, skateboards, getting good grades, skateboards and the like. As you might expect, life’s not easy for Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). Things get even harder for them when local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky) hides a whole bunch of Molly in Malcolm’s bag when his birthday party gets raided by big, scary people with guns. Our trio soon discovers that they need to sell the drugs themselves and actually set up a pretty ingenious way of doing so using Bit Coin (which I now kinda, sorta understand because of this movie). Malcolm also tries to figure out if his new crush Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) is really into him or not, which is tough because she’s trying to study for her GED and he’s trying to figure out how to be a drug dealer.
In addition to the geek leads (I want their band, Awreeoh, to be real), you’ve got a crazy party scene, young love/lust, shoot outs, increasingly dangerous scenarios and clever people doing clever things to keep themselves out of harm’s way (and ensuring that bad people get theirs along the way). It’s the kind of film that’s tailor made for me.
But like, I said, it’s even better. Dope‘s got a lot of funny moments, but it’s not necessarily a light film all the way through. The aforementioned shoot out is incredibly real and visceral. It’s not played for laughs or there to show how wacky the situation is for these characters. You get the feeling that these characters have all dealt with something like this or known someone who has. It’s not a shock to them the way it would be for me, but still something serious that needs to be dealt with. There are many moments like that peppered throughout the film that elevate it.
And then there’s Malcolm’s college entrance letter that he writes at the end of the film. Though it’s not the driving force of the film, Malcolm’s attempts to get into Harvard swirl around the proceedings, sometimes becoming more important and then shifting into the background. You almost forget about it after all the craziness at the end of the movie and then he writes this amazing letter that addresses another set of issues that have revolved around the whole film: race.
I’m a white guy from the suburbs so their experiences are not part of my personal history, but I’m trying to be more aware of just how different life really is for kids growing up in Inglewood, Detroit or nearby Newburgh. As much as Dope is about some geeks selling drugs to stay out of trouble, it’s also about the fact that the very plot of the movie wouldn’t work if it was set in the high school I went to. If this was set in my high school, the stakes would seem light or fun, but for these three, their whole lives are really on the line. When that idea hit me, it hit me hard. But it’s not overly serious either. After Malcolm’s eye-opening letter, he dances expertly to “The Humpty Dance” in various LA locales over the credits.
And I haven’t even talked about this amazing cast! I want to hang out with Malcolm, Diggy and Jib. Hell, I probably would have if we went to the same school. They’re so honest and real that you can’t help but see yourself in there. I’m not familiar with A$AP Rocky’s music, but damn, he’s a great actor. He embodied his role perfectly, adding depth and humor to a drug dealer who could have been one-note all the way. I really can’t think of a bad performance in the whole movie.
I haven’t seen any of Famuyiwa‘s other films like The Wood, Our Family Wedding or Brown Sugar, but I hope he not only continues making more movies like Dope, but also inspires other filmmakers to make their versions. I think we’d all be a lot better off if that was the case.