Review: Dope (2015)

Director: Rick Famuyiwa

Starring: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Zoë Kravitz

Release Date: 4th September 2015 (UK)

Films about geeks can hardly be called rare these days. The ubiquitous quirky band of misfits (usually suburban white kids) has been around forever and so have their natural enemies – the jocks, the parents, the teachers, the smothering restrictions of what’s expected. Get the girl, pass the exams and go to prom are plots we’ve seen done over and over again. And while most of us can indeed relate to these trials of teenage life, they can also be categorized under what’s called “first world problems”.

You know who has real problems? The ghetto geeks.

Dope introduces us to Malcolm (Shameik Moor), Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a trio of high school seniors who stand out in the ghetto like brightly painted targets, with their colourful 90’s attire, affinity for punk and above-average intelligence. Furthermore, they dare to have aspirations in a world where ambition is frowned upon. When Malcolm expresses his wish to get into Harvard, the school’s counselor bluntly tells him to forget about it. But condescending adults and small-time bullies are far from the worst that can happen in the ghetto. Malcolm might seem like the perfect student, who would never take a wrong step, but his infatuation with a local girl soon leads him to attending a drug dealer’s party, which leads to him accidentally ending up with a bag full of drugs.

The quirky tone of the film is gradually replaced by a more realistic one as Malcolm discovers how deep the rabbit hole goes. The action, when it comes, is abrupt and dramatic, and at no point do you feel safe because it all started as a comedy. At the same time, Dope is not the depressing downfall story that we’re used to seeing in a ghetto setting. It’s not about misfortune endlessly pounding down on flawed, self-destructive characters. Just like in real life, the ghetto geeks face both good and bad times, and try to make the best of them. Even as Malcolm sinks deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing, he does so in his own unique way that might just save his skin. Who needs to stand on corners and fight over turf, when you have the Internet and bitcoin, right?

The film employs the clever trick of first showing you the world of drugs from the outside and then giving you the inside perspective. Things look very different from the point of view of our sympathetic geeks. As the characters state several times over the course of the film, the people involved in drugs are complicated, and the film celebrates that complicatedness instead of condemning it. Everyone has their reasons.

Dope is a wild ride, but it does not forget to occasionally stop for a breath. In those quiet moments we see our geeks dealing with their sexuality, discussing who can use the n-word and who can’t, playing punk (okay, maybe not that quiet) and generally just being teenagers. Malcolm’s companions, Jib and Diggy, could have used more of that screen time, as they don’t quite manage to become fully fledged characters. But at least they’re funny and that redeems their two-dimensionality in my books.

Having passed through both the funny and the serious, the film attempts to tackle some profound issues in its conclusion. Does Malcolm’s venture into the world of drugs confirm the stereotype that he strives to disprove? Or is he simply employing unconventional means to overcome the unfair obstacles set by his environment? Whether or not Dope succeeds is for you to decide, but it does ask interesting questions, and that certainly sets it apart and makes it worth your time.


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