There’s a lot packed into Dope, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s daring, often funny comedy about three self-proclaimed geeks living in the dangerous streets of Inglewood, California — or, as the film’s protagonist Malcolm (Shameik Moore) calls them, “The Bottoms.”
Malcolm and his two best friends — Jib (Tony Revolori, who played the bellhop in The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a lesbian who dresses as a boy — are obsessed with 1990s hip-hop culture (Malcolm sports a hi-top fade, Kid ’n Play style), getting good grades and playing punk rock music. But their environment keeps getting in their way: Drug slingers on every block, bullies at school, lack of parenting and few economic means (one of Malcolm’s most prized possessions is his pair of Air Jordans, which become a running gag through the film).
One of the best things about Dope is the way in which the movie is able to depict life from the perspective of its characters, who have grown up surrounded by violence and danger. When one of their friends is shot and killed while standing in line at a fast-food restaurant, the only thing Malcolm and Jib really care about is getting their hands on his comic-book collection.
Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar) skirts the edge of tastelessness and keeps the film’s energy buzzing by refusing to succumb to melodrama. Whether the film is using a close-up of a blood-splattered Game Boy or a hilarious debate on who is allowed to use the n-word (Jib says he can because he is 14-percent African-American), Dope never strays far from its comedic roots, even after bullets start flying. Imagine a cross between Boyz n the Hood and a John Hughes picture, and you start to get a sense of what Famuyiwa was chasing.
He comes close to succeeding, too, but Dope ultimately overdoses on its own charm. The movie throws in so many characters and subplots — including Malcolm’s crush on the beautiful Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), the girlfriend of an amiable drug dealer — that by the time the main trio embarks on an elaborate scheme to sell a stash of stolen MDMA online, you feel like you’re watching three films at once. Dope has a sharp eye for cultural and ethnic differences (“All we gotta do is find the white people who go to Coachella,” Diggy offers as a way for them to find someone to buy their drugs) and aside from a few excruciating contrivances, most of the characters in the film refuse to settle into stereotypes (Quincy Brown, son of executive producer Sean Combs, is terrific in a few scenes as a spoiled rich kid who turns out to be a sweetheart).
But by the time Malcolm is deciding whether to fire the gun he’s holding in his shaking hands (with his application to Harvard pending!), Dope has overstayed its welcome. Here is the rare movie overstuffed with memorable moments that would have been better if there had been fewer of them.
Cast: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Keith Stanfield, A$AP Rocky, Zoe Kravitz, Chanel Iman, Quincy Brown, Blake Anderson, Roger Guenveur Smith.
Writer-director: Rick Famuyiwa.
An Open Road Films release. Running time: 115 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, nudity, violence, gore, drug use, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.