Review: Dope (Sundance 2015)
PLOT: Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a high-achieving, lovably geeky teen trying to survive on the mean streets of Inglewood. With his eyes on Harvard, Malcolm finds his plans for the future jeopardized when he inadvertently winds up in the possession of a backpack-full of drugs.
REVIEW: It's not hard to see why DOPE ended up becoming one of the priciest acquisition deals at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Fresh, funny, and paced like lightening, director Rick Famuyiwa's film has all the slickness and technical sophistication of a big studio-film. Yet, what makes DOPE different in that it's one of the few movies set in the ghetto that doesn't focus on gangs and violence, but rather the regular kids who just want to get out of their poorly funded schools and off to a (presumably) brighter future in college.
As the deadpan narration by Forrest Whitaker informs us early on, Malcolm is a geek, although perhaps he'd only be viewed that way in a place like Inglewood (with his particularly dangerous home forboddingly called The Bottoms). With his nineties hip-hop obsession, right down to his high-top Fresh Prince haircut and clothes, anywhere else the GAME OF THRONES-loving, BMX-riding Malcolm would be a hipster. Yet, with gang-bangers chasing him and his friends (Tony Revolori & Kiersey Clemons) home from school everyday, Malcolm's geekiness takes a certain measure of bravery, making him just about the coolest nerd you'll ever see on film.
This feels like a star-making part for Moore, who's literally on-screen every second here and makes for an identifiable and ultra-lovable protagonist. While DOPE starts out as a candy-colored comedy (complete with peppy Pharrell Williams songs for Malcolm's pop-hip hop band Oreo), the film ventures into much darker territory in the second half, and Moore is able to navigate this territory with the confidence of a full-fledged leading man.
Moore's sidekick friends are just as good, with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL's Tony Revolori playing Malcolm's 14% African pal, and Kiersey Clemons as his lesbian BFF, giving us insight into another marginalized voice from the inner-city. Famuyiwa has experience in bigger-budget studio directing with movies like THE WOOD & BROWN SUGAR, and perhaps as a result his work on DOPE feels ultra-confident, even as the film becomes more of a thriller in the second half as Malcolm and his friends are forced to sell-off a huge amount of the titular dope at the behest of a smooth-talking supplier, played by Spike Lee regular Roger Guenveur Smith. This would have been a tough thing to pull off for anyone but the way Famuyiwa is able to blend genres together while also maintaining a somewhat light tone (albeit with very real danger mixed-in) is enviable. Pretty much all the ingredients mesh together perfectly, although a romantic subplot with an older woman played by Zoe Kravitz feels slightly tacked-on, although Kravitz is always a welcome addition to any cast.
With Open Road having doled out a huge chunk of change for this, DOPE will likely get the big, 2000 screen release it deserves. It's already been penciled-in for a summer release, and hopefully word-of-mouth will propel this to summer sleeper status, as it certainly has all the elements for a major mainstream hit(it's more RISKY BUSINESS than BOYZ N THE HOOD) . Keep your eyes peeled for this one as DOPE is dope.
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