It sounds clueless and blinkered to compare the vibrant new comedy Dope, set in multicultural Inglewood southwest of L.A., to the extremely white 1983 film Risky Business.
But wait. The filmmaker, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, is the first to refer to his movie as “Risky Business for the social-media generation.” Producer Mimi Valdes, also quoted in the production notes, adds that its focus is “black nerds in the ’hood. Why hasn’t anyone shown that part of the culture before? Here’s an opportunity to show a black kid who is super smart, trying to get into Harvard, acing his SATs, liking tech stuff and hip-hop music and rock bands and grunge. We’ve never seen that character in the movies.” Maybe so. We’re certainly not likely to hear a better movie soundtrack in 2015.
Famuyiwa has been around a while and his best work, such as the screenplay for the Don Cheadle vehicle Talk to Me, indicates a voice deserving of wider recognition. A hit at both Sundance and Cannes film festivals earlier this year, Dope borrows from all over, guided by its protagonist’s obsession with ’90s music and fashion.
Malcolm, played by tall, serene Shameik Moore, is a graduating high school senior who lives with his bus driver mother (Kimberly Elise). His father, Nigerian-born, came in and out of their lives quickly, and Malcolm’s only meaningful memento of the man is a copy of his favorite movie: Superfly, the one about the drug-dealing antihero.
This is no casual detail, for the events of Dope send Malcolm and his best friends into a criminal and lucrative orbit not unlike the milieu of Superfly. At a nightclub birthday party thrown by drug dealer Dom (A$AP Rocky), guns are pulled and bodies fall and Dom’s stash of “Molly” gets stashed in Malcolm’s backpack. Malcolm realizes this when the drug-sniffing security dogs at his school start growling. From there Dope becomes a survival comedy, with Malcolm on the run, though there’s a little romance between Malcolm and Dom’s sometime squeeze (Zoe Kravitz, a strong screen presence).
Our hero’s best friends are superbly cast. Diggy, out of the closet and ready for anything, is played by Kiersey Clemons. The one they call “Jib” is handled by Tony Revolori, a long way from his turn as Zero, the bellboy, in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Not everything works in Dope. Famuyiwa strains to make the scenes dependent on our understanding of a Bitcoin scam interesting. The scenes featuring the silky, Harvard-educated drug lord Jacoby are muddied by the monotonous, whispering Roger Guenveur Smith.
Small matters. The film moves fleetly and the technique, full of split-screen images and unpredictable flashbacks, pulses with life. The bright, hot cinematography, consistently expressive, is by Rachel Morrison. Music superstar Pharrell Williams executive-produced; Forest Whitaker narrates and also produced. The tone of Dope is very interesting—funny, but rarely stupid-funny. The film does not wear its serious observations, about aspirations and realities and hypocrisies of all kinds (not just racial), in a heavy fashion. Life in “The Bottoms,” the neighborhood from which Malcolm wants out, may be dangerous but Famuyiwa presents it as part cautionary tale, part merry, cynical capitalist fable with a good-natured survivor at the center.
Dope (R): ★★★★✩