Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review: Dope (2015)

Dope (2015)

Rated R for language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, and some violence - all involving teens

Dope is a wild, unwieldy beast of a movie, filled with subplots on top of subplots and all manner of wacky adventures, and at the end of the day, I'm not sure if it came together in its entirety. However, what should be a weakness -- and it undoubtedly is something of a weakness -- is in fact this movie's greatest strength. It is willing to throw its characters into all manner of bizarre, uncomfortable situations in the name of both laughs and drama, and somehow, some way, it manages to piece them all together, forming, while not a coherent whole, definitely a coherent message. It's a movie with some big structural problems, but even so, it just works.

This film tells the story of Malcolm, a teenage boy who hangs out with his friends Diggy and Jib. They're in a band together, they skateboard, they ride BMX bikes, they're all uber-nerds, they're obsessed with '90s hip-hop, and overall, they're the exemplars of modern teenage geeks. There's just one thing, though: they're also black kids live in rough-and-tumble Inglewood, California. At their high school, the "cool kids" are gang bangers and drug dealers who would utterly devour the jock bullies from your usual teen comedy (though Veronica Sawyer and Jason Dean may well horrify even them). Their outstanding academic performance will undoubtedly carry less weight with college admissions officers when they see that those grades came from Inglewood High School, which their guidance counselor bluntly tells to Malcolm. This environment is hardly limited to school -- they may get caught in the crossfire and gunned down while ordering fast food, visiting their friends means avoiding large gatherings of Bloods along the way, and the only social activities are drug-fueled parties hosted by gangsters. It's at one of these parties where, despite Malcolm's best efforts to avoid that lifestyle, he and his friends get dragged into it anyway when Dom, the aspiring drug dealer who was putting on the party, dumps a massive quantity of MDMA into his lap after a deal gone wrong, with him only finding out the next day when he opens his backpack. Now Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib have to find a way to get rid of several bricks of molly, all while avoiding the various people who want their hands on it, including the other parties in the deal, a drug kingpin who turns out to be the man interviewing Malcolm for his Harvard admission, and an oversexed party girl who wants to snort it all. Their solution, a fusion of their backgrounds in both geek culture and the streets, is as ingenious as it is outlandish.

Malcolm is a guy you can't help but love. With his fashion sense (especially his huge hi-top fade haircut) and his '90s nostalgia, he readily recognizes that he's out of place amidst the gang violence of Inglewood, reminiscing on a time before he was born when rap was about more than just sex, bling, and drugs. Shameik Moore is outstanding as Malcolm, an unknown actor who makes Malcolm fun-loving but gives him a real human core and several layers far beyond just playing him as a Steve Urkel-esque "nerdy black kid". For much of the movie, you're simultaneously laughing along with this kid's misadventures, rooting for him, and fearing that he may wind up as just another "statistic" whose best efforts failed to get him out of the ghetto. It's these many layers that make his application letter to Harvard into one of this film's most powerful scenes, and the moment that, above all, stuck in my head as I left the theater. The rest of the cast, likewise composed of unknowns (save for Zoe Kravitz as Malcolm's love interest Nakia and Forest Whitaker as the narrator) and a couple of rappers (most notably A$AP Rocky and Tyga), is just as great, with scarcely a weak link in the entire cast. Nakia was probably the closest thing to a weak link, too often feeling periphery to the story, but that's through no fault of Kravitz, as the film is doing so many things at once that her character simply got lost in the cracks.

As for the rest of the film, there's just so much to talk about, and so much of which goes into spoiler territory, that I don't know where to begin. To continue on from what I was just saying, this is probably the biggest thing I can fault this film for, the fact that it just goes all over the place. Several storylines are running alongside one another, and while they're all connected in some way to the main story of Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib trying to offload all the molly they're stuck with, that story itself takes several turns for the bizarre throughout. I never knew what was going to happen next, and even when it did happen, I was often left dumbstruck that they took the story in that direction. Looking back, it all kind of makes logical sense what happened, but this film constantly skirted the line of total ridiculousness along the way, and a few subplots were left hanging at the end. However, what should be a weakness is also, in this film's own twisted way, something of a strength, as its utterly anarchic attitude means that it's constantly wringing a mix of big laughs, what-the-hells, and oh-no-they-didn'ts from me. It's the sort of film that can jump from a coherent story straight into a series of Vine memes and back again, while still finding a way to get back on track. It's a crazy-ass film that can't be fully described in mere words -- it has to be experienced.

Score: 4 out of 5

It's awkward and suffers from mood-whiplash at times, but it manages to take its lemons and make lemonade out of them, focusing on everything else that does work to such an extent that it elevates even the weak points and makes them strong. Pardon the pun, but this movie was simply dope.

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