WASHINGTON, July 20, 2015 – When it comes to a film like “Dope,” you have to think: Every year needs its enduring summer movie. This movie doesn’t necessarily have to become wildly popular the summer it’s introduced. It really doesn’t even need to be about the summer and summer fun, but instead should pulsate with an almost joyous but distinctly youthful undercurrent.
While the candidate film may play up certain riffs on the nostalgia theme, it won’t be a clunky attempt to follow people growing older and reminiscing. Instead, it will feel modern to the point where it seems trapped in a specific era.
As such a film gradually gains traction on underground “must see” lists, it helps, of course, if word of the film spreads slowly yet relentlessly, gradually becoming ingrained in the public conscious. More importantly, though, for this to happen, it also needs to be more buzz-worthy than anything else out there, prompting, edgy, quietly urgent inquiries, like “why aren’t more people talking about this film?”
This, in turn, makes it fashionable and much-discussed among the crowd that looks for such films, which eventually results in more people hearing the buzz, getting curious about the film and wanting to see it for themselves. In 2015, that movie appears to be “Dope.”
Here’s how a blurb on review site Rotten Tomatoes outlines the film:
“A critical hit and audience favorite out of the Sundance Film Festival, in DOPE, Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is carefully surviving life in a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles while juggling college applications, academic interviews, and the SAT.”
Marketed as a crime-oriented comedy-drama, “Dope” opens with a multi-use title sequence while characters Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), and Jib (Tony Revolori) are riding their BMX bikes through Inglewood, California. Before a single word of narration or dialogue occurs, the film already looks and feels like it’s firmly set in the 1990s. We soon learn that this is intentional, as Malcolm explains that these three amigos are ‘90s enthusiasts, especially when it comes to ‘90s-era hip-hop.
It’s soon clear that the filmmakers haven’t chosen this imagery out of any desire to re-create the era in order to make this film into a period piece. Instead, it’s because three kids in “Dope” are geeks who have decided to live in a world of their choosing.
Or, more specifically, it’s just Malcolm. Diggy and Jib go along with most of the atmospherics. But Malcolm is the one character in the film who comes up with the big ideas. Or at least the kind of ideas so laced with his overwhelming enthusiasm and unique charisma that his friends find them irresistible and naturally join in.
Everything from Malcolm’s dress to his haircut is carefully manicured to create a certain aura. And like a lot of kids, despite seeming in outward appearance to be aping a bygone style and era, Malcolm is still very much himself. But one of the conceits of this film is that Malcolm doesn’t know this yet.
The most consistent element distinguishing “Dope” from the rest of the summer crowd is director Rick Famuyiwa’s unwavering devotion to style throughout the film. From the opening and somewhat overarching narration provided by Forrest Whittaker, to the quick, intricate editing, the lighting and cinematography and the perfectly nuanced details – right down to the unselfconscious teenage posturing of the three leads – everything that makes “Dope” the gem that it is comes down to Famuyiwa’s powerful sense of style.
That’s not to say this movie’s plot is secondary. But it’s a pretty standard plot, at least for a film involving teenagers. Being a typical teenager, albeit an extremely bright one, Malcolm simply wants his status in life to change. He enjoys hanging out with his friends Diggy and Jib, but he’s ready for something different. Like going to Harvard.
Malcolm’s heretofore limited world gets a subtle but significant shift when he runs a simple errand for local drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky), who asks him to talk to Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) about a party, which Malcolm ends up being invited to.
Complications ensue when the party is invaded by a rival gang and then broken up by the cops. In the ensuing chaos, Dom slips a large drug score into Malcolm’s backpack. After discovering the drugs, Malcolm and his pals are forced to move the drugs.
We’ve seen plot structures like this before, and “Dope” isn’t necessarily something entirely new when it comes to the story line. That said, a distinguishing feature of this film is the increasingly modern in a way that it connects not only with teenage concerns, but with a specific, in the now teenage subculture.
In the hands of a less skillful director, “Dope” could easily feel dated at any moment. But the way Famuyiwa motivates his youthful cast interact and react with the people, technology, culture, and the world around them is firmly set in the here and now in painful and often funny ways.
The story line of “Dope,” is pervaded with the kind of darkness that could easily slip in and take over the film. In some ways, the current film is reminiscent of that bygone classic, “Boyz ‘N’ the Hood.” That 1991 film was a landmark effort in capturing the essence of black urban youth. The same sensation is present in “Dope.”
Yet, while “Boyz” was at times overwhelmingly hopeless, “Dope” actually resists the idea that the youth exuberance of its characters has to be suffocated by the odds that are stacked against them. The standard gangbangers and drug dealers who have populated such like-minded settings in the past are present, to be sure. But the three friends simply refuse to be dragged into their world. In an odd way, by so strongly identifying with the past, they become more independent than the clichés and caricatures most of their contemporaries have become.
As a result, despite the relatively grim circumstances the three friends find themselves in, their outlook and this are endlessly bright and ultimately uplifting. The cinematography is sharp and vibrant throughout, mirroring the two sides of the world Malcolm and his friends live in, the seedy underworld and the sunny atmosphere of southern California.
The reality of their Janus-like world is omnipresent and never ignored. But the kids never let it upend how they respond to that world. Even scenes filmed at night, are accentuated with colors splashing in to the foreground, casting everything from the actual scene composition to the characters’ motivations in plain light and reflecting the way the three main characters think.
Again, though, it’s Malcolm who really creates this film’s unusual aura. Everything is seen through is eyes. The scenes that don’t specifically involve or follow him – even the ones containing Diggy and Jib – are filmed as direct flashbacks.
The world we see is created by him and reflected from him. His youthful face, devoid of hint of aging or weariness, gives him an almost naïve vibe every time he stares at the camera, focusing on and puzzling his way out of his latest dilemma. His momentary confusion never conflicts with the essential hopefulness and positive emotions he wears on his sleeve at all times.
Nothing in the world can intrude on Malcolm’s vision, save for one significant exception near the end of the film when he finds himself at wits’ end as situation after situation piles on relentlessly. Finally feeling out of his depth, he begins to waver—something that’s reflected by the lighting and surroundings going suddenly darker as it to represent Malcolm’s confused emotional state, sensing he’s about to lose everything. It’s literally and figuratively the darkest moment in the film.
Even here, however, the film manages to brighten again as Diggy and Jib softly pull their best friend back from the brink. It’s a memorable moment.
Rick Famuyiwa has always made a point of highlighting friendship in the films where he’s had creative control. He maintains this focus in “Dope.” Malcolm is at the center of the film but so is his relationship with Diggy and Jib. Their bond is present whether they’re performing in their band, Awreeoh, or simply moving along from one scenario to the next. It’s conveyed even more intensely by the excellent performances turned in by this film’s three young leads.
The bright and wistful nature of Malcolm’s, Diggy’s and Job’s interactions is what drives this film in its unique way, and it’s the warmth radiated by their relationship that gives “Dope” exactly the kind of feel every summer film should shoot for. Summer movies and summer itself should reflect the positive energy and directness of childhood. It’s something to remembered and cherished.
Things get more complicated as we grow older. A film like this reminds us of the joy in simply living for the here and now.