Fresh off its enthusiastic debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Dope is finally getting a theatrical release thanks to a deal made with Open Road Films. Dope follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). They’re geeks obsessed with ’90s hip-hop culture who don’t quite fit in with most of the kids at Inglewood. If college applications, the SATs and academic interviews weren’t enough, Malcolm finds himself between a rock and a hard place after finding out his backpack was stashed with drugs after a night at a dealer’s birthday party, which is what drives him through a bizarre adventure around Los Angeles.
There has been a lot of buzz surrounding Dope since it made its debut at Sundance, which I can certainly understand, but I found myself underwhelmed when I finally saw it. It isn’t so much that the film is bad, but it is so rough around the edges that it doesn’t quite live up to the potential that it could have despite its few good moments. I really like what the movie is going for, I like the set-up with Malcolm and his friends as these weird outsiders. I like the postmodern spin on ’90s black culture through early hip-hop and homages to films like Super Fly and those by Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers and F. Gary Gray. This was a film I thought I would love, but ultimately found myself indifferent towards.
The big thing about this movie and the way it was built up was like it was this big revelation, like some new kid entering the indie scene in a big way. But no, the writer/director is Rick Famuyiwa, a 42 year old who already has already directed three feature films since 1999 including The Wood, Brown Sugar and Our Family Wedding. I only vaguely remember seeing The Wood and Brown Sugar and liking them, but it’s been so long I don’t really remember much. Given his experience, it’s shocking that Dope is such an unpolished piece in its writing and filmmaking. The structure is very odd, starting off like a riff on the 1999 film, Go, but it ultimately switches gears to an almost entirely new story with Malcolm selling drugs online by exchanging them with bitcoins, and then taking an even harder left turn in the last 15 minutes or so. After the initial excitement, it’s like getting into a car with a first time driver, constantly stopping and going, and never having a real flow. The pacing isn’t great, and all the energy mustered up in the opening flutters to a stop. The cinematography and editing weren’t anything noteworthy since it was mostly bland, standard indie techniques that I’ve seen over and over again. I was really bummed by how little visual flourish the film has especially considering the influences, and it was up to the soundtrack to do all the heavy lifting in terms of the film’s style (which it actually does great, the soundtrack is incredible).
I was also disappointed with how hardly any of the characters felt fleshed out. Malcolm is the only person that comes to a fully-fledged character. His friends, Diggy and Jib, are unfortunately very flat characters, along with pretty much everyone else, but I hoped that all the protagonists were interesting in more ways that the one-note that the characters were given. Diggy is the lesbian, Jib is the coward, and there’s really nothing more to their characters than that, aside from maybe being horny for a lot of the time. It’s almost a miracle that the two actors, especially Kiersey Clemons, were able to add some charm through the performances to make them at least seem like people. Then there are the supporting characters, who aren’t given enough material to make interesting. And that is despite some good performances by the likes of Zoë Kravitz, A$AP Rocky, Blake Anderson, Chanel Iman, Kimberly Elise and Keith Stanfield. The only weak, acting wise, is Rick Fox, who was acting like he was in a completely different movie. Forest Whitaker, also a producer on the film, does a narration, but it’s doesn’t come up much, and it adds nothing, so it just feels pointless.
There are moments that work, but they just remain as moments, not as pieces of a fulfilling whole. There are some good jokes, Shameik Moore is a fantastic lead, and I like what the film is trying to say, especially in the final moments of the film (although I still think that moment comes almost completely out of left field). When it’s all said and done, Dope is another quirky, indie coming-of-age dramedy that just happens to have a reference point that differs from most which I think is a big reason as to why the film is getting so much attention. Yet, once everything is all said and done, it seems like the film manages to both try so little, while also trying too hard to the point of everything feeling phony and disingenuous.
I can’t say Dope is an awful film, it’s not. At worst, it’s average, bordering on mediocre. There was a chance to make a geeky, stylish, yet thoughtful coming-of-age film, but I don’t think Dope takes that conceit to its fullest potential. I liked most of the performances, some of the jokes, the overall message and the awesome soundtrack, but everything else wasn’t impressive enough to warrant much praise. I’m aware that most people have been drawn towards the film and I respect that. Dope is a film that I appreciate for what it is trying to do more than I actually like it. Given the filmmaker behind it, I think this film could have used more young blood behind the camera, not just in front of it.