The “L.A. movie” appears to be its very own genre of cinema. Tinseltown often serves as a blank slate for whatever filmmakers wish to imbue it with. For Billy Wilder, Sunset Boulevard (1950) presented the opportunity to peek behind the curtain at both the creative process and a hidden industrial history that everyone had quickly forgot. In Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson used the city of angels and demons as a backdrop for the emotional bareness that connections or the lack there of have on all of us. Sometimes, filmmakers like the Coen Brothers take the indefinable city and strip mine it for purely comedic value, as did their twisty stoner noir The Big Lebowski (1998).
Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope feels like a pseudo-Frankenstein’s monster of all these examples, adding the much neglected element of race into the mix. Dope follows the senior year of Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore), a self-professed nerd obsessed with the golden age of hip hop music. Malcolm, along with his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), wants desperately to escape Inglewood, nicknamed the Bottoms. While unambiguously black, Malcolm is a teenager caught between two worlds: the dog-eat-dog, abusive mentality of Inglewood and the kaleidoscopic, curated safe haven of him and his friends. Meanwhile, Malcolm is drawn into an unlikely romance with Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), girlfriend of a local drug dealer. Unsurprisingly, shenanigans ensue that threaten to ruin Malcolm and his friends’ chances of escaping their troubled environment.
As far as Sundance movies go, Dope covers familiar coming-of-age ground in a fresh and provocative way. For the most part, Dope’s style is fairly straightforward. However, several of the movie’s best moments are when the filmmakers toy with time and space, an inevitable cinematic result of Malcom’s two worlds and identities colliding. The film’s thrills extend just beyond style, as the narrative quite effectively straddles the line gracefully in scenes between comedy and drama. “Is this supposed to be funny or serious?” was a question I found myself readily asking in Dope. However, this uncertainty was less of a chore and felt more of an act of discovery, both for myself and the filmmakers.
It’s within this journey that Dope creates its own rich and textured universe that plays well within the hallmarks and tropes of a high school movie. Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy are all immediately likable and recognizable. It’s not hard to imagine Famuyiwa using the three as avatars for himself and his friends, undoubtedly imaginative youths who struggled to break free of their restraints. Again, many a Sundance film has explored this dynamic but Dope ups the ante by dotting the landscape with memorable characters in thorny situations, many of which would spoil the movie if I detailed them thoroughly. But rest assured an instance of public urination and the occasional shootout are readily available.
It takes a while though for Dope to really start having fun with its own premise, though. While the film does an excellent job at setting up pieces of exposition and character details that will pay off later, the filmmakers seemed to have a second and third act in mind first, leaving the first act the unenviable chore of following a mold that I found troublingly rigid at first. But once the plot picks up after the first twenty to thirty minutes, Dope decides to loosen its tie and throw a party. These aforementioned bits of mandatory plot points work relatively smoothly in a story that throws up enough subplots that spice up this well-worn recipe. And even the ones that do not can be easily dismissed as the next sequence of hijinks kicks up into full gear.
Perhaps Dope’s biggest problem is just that: too much partying, not enough purpose. For all of Malcolm’s proclamations about applying to Harvard, we get little insight into what kind of academic interests creatively or professionally motivate him. Also, it does not make much sense to me why Malcolm is so desperate to attend a stuffy, overtly white institution like Harvard when his interests more clearly reside in a more multicultural space. Perhaps though this contradiction speaks to Malcolm’s own lack of clarity about who he really is and how he fits into traditional “white” and “black” labels. It will take another viewing to determine whether or not Malcolm’s inconsistencies were intentionally hollow or not. But for now, the film’s ambiguity is welcome to any easy, overly pat simplifications of Malcolm’s internal struggles.
The movie’s emotional arc relies on Malcolm coming to grips with his of place in the world. Though clearly black, Malcolm’s personality and interests leave white and black people alike restricting him to qualities of the opposite race. This comes to bear more in the forefront in later scenes in the film, as Malcolm and the audience are forced to come to terms with how the larger story at play has moved him slowly but irrevocably. As said earlier, these punctuations of comedy or drama with one another give these events even more of a sense of weight.
Having said that, the film’s framing device (the looming college essay) feels like an unchallenging way for Malcolm (and by proxy Famuyiwa) to bring to bear the themes of the film in a bit too tedious a manner. The same expository tool was used almost as egregiously in Spectacular Now (2013), another fresh cinematic exercise of high school angst. However, I feel like the latter film felt more welcome thanks to its protagonist’s (Miles Teller) inability to articulate himself and what he cares about. Dope’s equivalent decides to throw up its hands and point to problems of racial inequality and expectation. While many of these points were valid, they seemed a bit out of step with a movie that tried for the most part to be a breezy play on the coming-of-age formula.
Despite these problems that plague the end of Dope, there is no denying the amount of energy and entertainment a little film like it packs into every available moment. Even though it is a bit messy and overreaching in its conclusion in a way that last year’s good, but flawed, Dear White People was, Dope gets by with its pretentions better due to its genre trappings. However, both films present welcome, idiosyncratic visions of a world were labels are less true but ever used.
3.5 out of 5 stars