Friday, June 26, 2015

DOPE is, In Fact, a Super Dope Movie

DOPE Review:

- Dope is the kind of movie that has "breakout" written all over it. It's got several performances that - if there's any justice in Hollywood - will be star-making. And it's a movie that should put writer/director Rick Famuyiwa on many more people's radars. The film - a potent blend of comedy and drama - is a Big Lebowski-esque neo-noir set in the rough neighborhood of Inglewood, CA. It tells the time-honored story of a regular guy getting in way over his head, getting roped into a crime story that he had no intention of getting roped into. But what's unique here is that Famuyiwa brings an amazing sense of authenticity to what is also a stylized and over-the-top film. The characters and setting all feel real and lived-in - as much a legit and vibrant slice of Los Angeles culture as Lebowski.

If The Big Lebowski was a stylized look at Los Angeles' middle-aged hippies, stoners, and burn-outs, DOPE is an almost-as-stylized look at a group we haven't much seen in pop-culture until now: the urban geek. DOPE's hero, Malcolm, is an African-American, inner-city nerd. A smart dude who eschews trying to be gangsta for a look that pays homage to his 80's and early-90's-era retro hip hop and rock heroes. He's in a nerd-rock band, he reads comics, and he looks like he walked out of a Kid n' Play movie. He runs with a group of other inner-city outcasts - including Diggy, a brash lesbian, and Job, a shy, mixed-race geek - who also serve as his bandmates. Malcolm is a good kid - he's trying his hardest to graduate high school, get into a good college, and get out of Inglewood. But things take a turn for the not-so-great when he and his friends decide to attend a party thrown by a local drug-dealer. The reason, of course, boils down to a girl who Malcolm is crushing on. But the result is that gunfire breaks out, a drug deal goes bad, and the dealer ends up stashing his drugs in Malcolm's backpack. Suddenly, Malcolm is caught up in a conflict that he wants no part of. And things only escalate from there. Malcolm - a quiet guy who usually keeps to himself, is now caught up in an insane world of drugs, sex, violence, and people who want to kill him.

Malcolm is played by Shameik Moore, and it's a fantastic central performance. Moore totally sells the comedy of the film, but he also gives Malcolm a lot of heart. We really root for the guy, because we are made to understand just how precarious his future is - if something happens that jeopardizes his college admission interviews, he's potentially seriously screwed. Later on in the film though, we see Malcolm grow. He becomes more assertive, more take-charge, and even a bit ruthless in his dealings. In the Big Lebowski, The Dude is the Dude and always will be. But in DOPE, Malcolm is a character that does change a lot over the course of the film. Meanwhile, there's an equally knockout performance here from Kiersey Clemons as Diggy. A loyal friend and take-no-crap individual, Diggy is a great character, and Clemons completely shines in the role - threatening to totally steal the movie. Tony Revolori is also really good as Jib. The three as a group have a great chemistry. The movie has some other strong supporting performances, and some familiar faces pop up, including Zoe Kravitz and Blake Anderson of Workaholics. But the three leads really make the movie.

DOPE is bursting with energy, and Famuyiwa really does a great job of blending tones and styles to create an effective genre mash-up. The movie is often very funny - with some really strong, memorable dialogue. And it's dense - it's the kind of movie that packs a lot in, and that can only benefit from re-watches. There's also some really kinetic action, and a lot of intensity as Malcom increasingly finds himself a target for all manner of shady types.

My one issue is that the movie's ending, to me, falls a little flat - in particular, with a fourth-wall breaking scene that feels like too much of a departure from what we've seen before. The movie goes down some interesting roads that make Malcolm and his friends a little less likable than they start out - and I also wonder if the movie goes a little too far, and perhaps doesn't realize how Malcolm's actions will cause shifting audience sympathies. Regardless, there are a couple of points in the film where I think the movie could have ended, and it would have provided a more effective exclamation point to the story.

But man, DOPE is one of the must-see indie movies of 2015 so far. Its characters and its setting are brought to life with such vibrancy that it inevitably will stick with you. And there's a humor and intelligence and energy to the movie that really makes it pop. This is a unique voice being given a forum to speak, to tell a story - and in today's world of cookie-cutter films, that to me is pretty damn dope.

My Grade: A-

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