By Ashley Clark
[A slightly different version of this review — plus a full plot synopsis — appears in the September print edition of Sight & Sound magazine.]
The central character in Rick Famuyiwa’s overly slick high school comedy-cum-crime caper Dope is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), an African-American student and self-identifying “geek” who excels academically, has a fetish for 1990s popular culture and, alongside his best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, of Grand Budapest lobby boy fame) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), plays in a punk band called Awreeoh. Their name — a phonetic, ironic riff on the word Oreo: a cookie that’s dark brown on the outside and white on the inside — is one of the film’s few genuinely good jokes. If their songs sound suspiciously polished and radio-friendly, it’s because they’ve been written by the disconcertingly ageless Pharrell Williams.
Malcolm wants to attend Harvard, but his dreams seem circumscribed by his surroundings: he lives in a rough, crime-riddled Inglewood district named “The Bottoms”; he refers in an arch voiceover to his stereotypically underprivileged upbringing (absent father, overworked single mother); and his application essay — a critical analysis of rapper Ice Cube’s 1993 hit ‘It Was a Good Day’ — is dismissed by his supervisor as a sign of his arrogance. Malcolm unexpectedly comes into the possession of a bounty of drugs (for reasons too convoluted to explain here) and finds that selling them might be his only way out. To peddle or not to peddle? This is the moral dilemma upon which the ensuing narrative hinges.
One one hand, it’s tempting to laud Dope for broadening the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic scope of what we’ve come to expect from the teen movie genre. It’s a playing field which is largely populated by white middle-class types, as Charlie Lyne’s recent documentary Beyond Clueless effectively demonstrates. Yet the film gives Malcolm and his friends little to work with beyond cynically surface signifiers of cultural taste, seemingly precision-tooled to appeal to some perceived hip young “post-racial” demographic.
Though Moore is a reasonably expressive performer, the character he plays is frustratingly blank, while the ethnically ambiguous Jib is barely characterised at all. His sole notable trait is his belief that he’s qualified to use the word “nigga”, presumably because he sees it as a state of mind (like Chinatown?) The epithet-cum-term of endearment peppers Famuyiwa’s script with disturbingly egregious regularity, and its use — by a white character, not Jib — is only vaguely challenged by Diggy in a toe-curlingly non-committal scene late in the film.
Meanwhile Diggy’s defining characteristic is that she’s a lesbian with a boyish appearance. In one supposedly humorous scene, she flashes her breasts at a vulgar club doorman to prove she is female. But Diggy is just the tip of Dope’s groaning iceberg of woman problems. Zoe Kravitz, as Malcolm’s putative love interest Nakia, is charismatic, but woefully under-utilised — in her case, Famuyiwa has clearly confused “ethereal presence” with “forgetting to write a decent part”. As drug moll Lily, poor Chanel Iman has an even worse time of it: her role is limited to vomiting on Malcolm’s face; publicly pissing in a bush; and crashing a car, all while in a drug-ravaged state of near undress. It’s comic relief for people who like seeing beautiful women thoroughly debased. Moreover, for all Dope’s pretensions to modernity and freshness, there’s no place on screen at all for dark-skinned black women.
The nostalgic obsession of Dope’s characters is reflected in Famuyiwa’s cloyingly retrogressive filmmaking approach. Plot-wise he pilfers liberally from Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983), but replaces the earlier film’s streamlined menace with myriad contrivances and implausible coincidences. His dialogue, meanwhile, is Tarantino-esque in a bad way, riddled with unconvincing discursive patter and tortured monologuing — the great actor Roger Guenvuer Smith (Do The Right Thing‘s Smiley), playing a whispering villain, does his level best with one of the worst speeches I’ve ever heard: some baroquely incomprehensible flannel about Amazon and buying drugs.
With its expertly curated hip-hop soundtrack, eye-catching costumes and Rachel Morrison’s gleaming, candy-coloured cinematography, Dope might be shiny on the outside, but it’s one stale cookie on the inside.
Dope is in cinemas now. You’ve been warned.