So far 2015 has been a year with several pleasant surprises, but none has been pleasanter than Rick Famuyiwa’s stylish Dope — a little film that defies just about all the odds. It lacks any real name stars (the only name I immediately recognized was Tony Revolori, who played Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel). It boasts a title that is at once apt and not especially appealing. The film opens by offering three definitions of “dope” — drugs, a stupid person and slang for excellent, all of which are on display in Dope. But — and this is very important — Dope is not a drug comedy. And yet drugs — specifically Molly (which we used to call Ecstasy) — and drug selling are involved, and one comedy set piece is built on one character being high on the drug. Yet what we have here is one of the most refreshing and pertinent coming-of-age comedies in years — in large part because of its unusual setting and its equally unusual characters. John Hughes this is not. You probably don’t know it, but you need to see this movie.
The film centers on three friends living in a bad, even dangerous, area — the Bottoms of Inglewood, Calif. This is a place that offers two options: bad and worse. But it’s home to Malcolm (Shameik Moore, who from certain angles has the hangdog look of a very young Godfrey Cambridge) and his friends, the even more geeky Jib (Revolori) and androgynous lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). They clearly don’t fit in with any aspect of their surroundings. Malcolm’s only memory of his absent father is of receiving a copy of dad’s favorite movie (Super Fly) in the mail. Diggy has the added problem of a family that keeps taking her to church to “pray the gay away.” And Jib (who is only 14 percent black) just classically doesn’t fit in.
Worse, they are geeks — obsessed with ’90s hip-hop (Macolm even sports an incipient Kid ‘n Play haircut), have their own (actually pretty good) punk band, and are into what their contemporaries term “white shit,” which mostly means getting good grades and applying for college. Still, they are comfortable with who they are and who they want to be. In fact, it’s the very arrogance his guidance counselor (Bruce Beatty) accuses him of (for applying to Harvard) that might just get Malcolm where he wants to be. It doesn’t hurt that it turns out — no surprises here — that the world at large is just generally corrupt, but I’ll leave the specifics of that to the film.
The major plot involves what happens when drug dealer Dom (A$ap Rocky) — after using Malcolm to deliver messages to his bookish girlfriend, Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) — takes a liking to the kid, which ultimately leads to Malcolm ending up with a backpack full of drugs and a gun. (Malcolm is so considered a harmless geek that the school security guard just assumes the metal detector is broken and the drug-sniffing dog is wrong.) What to do with the drugs becomes the major driving force of the plot. Our heroes know that turning in drugs and a gun to the police is out of the question because of who they are and where they live. More, it turns out that others are after the drugs and … well, you take it from there, but I will say almost nothing plays out like you expect.
This is truly a worthy film — an excellent film. As I said, it’s a film you very much should see, but it’s a film I fear will get lost in the shuffle. After the press screening at The Carolina on Sunday morning, I told the studio rep how very much I liked Dope, but that the studio was probably killing its already slim chances by opening it on too many screens. Make no mistake, this is every inch an art/indie film (hence the press screening) — in the best sense of the term — but it’s opening as a wide release, which is unfortunate. It needs your support, but even saying that, I’m afraid the pie is just cut too small to make it succeed. I hope I’m proved wrong. Rated R for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity and some violence — all involving teens.