Wednesday, 19 August 2015
FILM REVIEW: DOPE
When you grow up black in Los Angeles, in a suburb colloquially known as The Bottoms, not much is expected of you. So it should come as no surprise when Malcolm (a terrific Shameik Moore) is literally laughed out of the office of his high school principal when he tells him he's aiming for a place at Harvard.
But Malcolm is not your typical ghetto youth. He has no gangsta affiliation; he studies hard; has an obsession, along with his best buds, Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), with 1980s geek culture, and also plays in a punk band with them.
Malcolm is also deceptively ambitious, and it's this characteristic which all of the adults in his life -- said principal (Bruce Beatty); Dom (Rakim Myers), the neighbourhood drug pin; Jacoby (Roger Guenveur Smith), the criminal lawyer whose more the former than the latter -- underestimate when he and his pals come into possession of a bag full of drugs.
Those drugs belong to Dom, as does Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), who inspires Malcolm -- whilst also fueling his hormones -- to take charge of a very dangerous situation and make it work to his advantage.
Not that Dope, from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, is a heavy-handed, hand-wringing cinema verite look at life in the 'hood. It's essentially a buddy comedy with its trio of fresh-faced leads keeping things light. (And 10 points if you can name the last American teen film where none of the protagonists were white.)
Issues of race, gender and education are raised but they're done so, for the most part, with a gentle hand; a coda where Malcolm reads his Harvard entrance essay to the audience is, however, unsubtle and unnecessary. (So, too, is producer Forest Whitaker's infrequent narration.)
And if Dope doesn't manage to sustain the fun-filled pace of the first half -- Malcolm's plan for the drugs getting the film bogged down and convoluted -- the charm of Moore and his cohorts remains winning. You'll be cheering for them, and unlike the school principal, you'll be laughing with, not at, Malcolm.