“This is creative. This shows that I’m different.”
Movies, with rarely any exception, have three acts. The first is the set-up, the introduction to the characters and the world. Second comes the rising action or the confrontation. And last comes the all important climax. It’s the resolution and the coda that brings the story full circle and begins a new chapter. Dope has one of the most electric and fun opening acts I have seen in years. I even went so far as to write in my notes, “this is game-changing.” But then you realize it’s not. The film builds to a 30 minute high and immediately folds in on itself with a concussive shift in narrative tone and style. Dope sacrifices the initial appeal of unfocused and drifting storytelling for a plot driven coming of age tale that goes nowhere. The gears on its bike never shift up for the ascending climb, and it leaves the film and the audience pedaling faster than a doping Tour de France rider trying to keep in medal contention. Dope is not bad, but it certainly disappoints.
High School senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a self-professed geek. He’s got straight-A smarts with hopes of attending Harvard. And he’s obsessed with 90’s hip hop culture. From the music to the clothes to the flat top hair, Malcolm literally looks like a teenager displaced from a previous time and era. He lives in “The Bottoms” of Inglewood California with his single mother and runs around with his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Jib isn’t black but he’s still accepted. And Diggy is a proudly lesbian girl often mistaken for a boy. One hilarious scene shows her in church, surrounded by family members and friends who try on a weekly basis to “pray the gay away” while she lustfully casts glances at the women around her. Dope works best when we see these three entirely unique and original characters interacting and bouncing off of one another. It’s a treat to start.
However, that’s hardly any of the movie, and the last two acts are ponderous and plodding. Malcolm comes into possession of MDMA, has to evade dealers, falls in what I’ll call “like”, and uses his bookended street smarts to try to outdo everyone else. Not only does it rarely make sense, it’s also rarely engaging. A few scenes are memorable and I’ll let you discover those on your own. But for a film built on such a buck the norm and rise against attitude, it was nearly depressing to see it become a modernized and urbanized version of Adventures in Babysitting instead of the Stand by Me adventure into youth that it could have been. Dope has so much style, so many moving pieces, that it feels like a three-piece suit pieced together from three different department store tailors. The result is clashing. We get three acts, but the Dr. Scholl’s are missing under the film’s tired, well-traveled feet.
I’ll say this much about Dope; if it’s anything, this is an introduction to three promising talents (not counting Revolori, the only aspect I enjoyed in The Grand Budapest Hotel). As Diggy, Kiersey Clemons is both laugh-out-loud funny and insightful. She’s smart and strong, weak and vulnerable. I hope to see more of her in the future…you can tell she just has it. And as Malcolm, Shameik Moore gives the kind of performance that will have casting directors camping out at his door. The more I thought about the film, the more I disliked it, and the more I resented the conflicting themes Malcolm was meant to serve as a pillar for. It’s rare to entirely dislike a character and love the performance all at once. Moore just has the it factor, the wow, the stickiness of an ant trap. Should the right opportunities and roles come his way, the kid is going to be a star.
Then there is writer/director Rick Famuyiwa. His direction is always impressive here. On the other hand, the writing is not, and is what made me distance myself from a film I so badly wanted to connect with. Dope is one giant motif, a movie full of themes and messages that pack a powerful haymaker. But the way we’re spoonfed them, they become a jab, one that we can dip and duck away from without being hit. Famuyiwa clearly wants to say something. It’s evident when Malcolm turns his back and lifts his hoodie in camaraderie to Trayvon Martin. Had a young Spike Lee directed this film, it would have screamed resolute Black Power to the point of leather-gloved fists risen in the air. Famuyiwa loses his own story’s purpose and point to the plot, and by doing so he depicts Malcolm as an arrogant kid who, even after altering his circumstances, becomes no better than the dealer on the corner. Maybe that’s real. Certainly a Midwesterner like me wouldn’t know. But the thing is that, even from a distance, it feels mendacious to Malcolm, and even more to the story. Dope starts strong, but like a smart couple in my theater who walked out, it’s not worth much after the opening act.
“You shouldn’t settle for what’s expected.”
Rating: 2.5 out of 5