Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dope (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Rick Famuyiwa


You watch a film like Dope and it makes it very clear just how uninspiring most mainstream films can be. When a film this fresh comes along, it's hard not to be enthused by its very energy, even if that energy leads you into complicated situations. The film is like John Hughes by way of Spike Lee, a broad high school comedy that still manages to make coherent, thoughtful comments of serious socioeconomic issues. It's a movie that doesn't allow the shallowness of some of its jokes to reflect on the intelligence of its script. It stars Blake Anderson from Workaholics and still comes off looking smart. Films about race are difficult to make in this country, because so many members of the American elite still don't believe in the existence of white privilege or institutional racism. Movies have to be put through a non-threatening filter , and Dope pulls this off brilliantly before hitting you over the head with its real message by the time we see the conclusion. The film's director, Rick Famuyiwa, is a Hollywood veteran with several titles under his belt, including Our Family Wedding and Brown Sugar (neither of which I've seen). Those films were studio-produced stories with bottom-line intentions, while Dope feels grittier, more personal. The film showcases high school on the wrong side of the tracks but does so with an adult's wide perspective - it's details refined and sharp. It's the best comedy that I've seen so far this year.

The film stars Shameik Moore in a role that should make him a star if the world is fair. Moore plays Malcolm, a high school brainiac living in one of the roughest neighborhoods of Southern California. He's aware of his chances of becoming a statistic, and has learned ways of maneuvering around school and around town to avoid trouble. His mother (Kimberly Elise) is a bus driver and his father left before he was born, leaving him only a VHS copy of Superfly with a note recommending it as his "favorite movie!". Malcolm, for all intents and purposes, is a geek; he obsesses over the 90's, which he considers to be the Golden Age of rap music (and wears the classic flattop fade hairstyle to show it), he gets good grades and, probably most importantly, he hangs out with Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). His two closest friends are also his two only friends, and they've come to accept their station outside of the cool class. They share common interests in music and have even started their own three-piece punk-rap band (one of the film's biggest faults is that it can't seem to find a competent way to make the three kids look like actual musicians). Diggy is a foul-mouthed lesbian who enjoys an androgynous style which often gets her confused for a boy, while Jib is a nebbish nerd who uses his ambiguous ethnicity (he's 14% African, according to to allow him to use the n-word in casual conversation.

When Malcolm finds himself invited to the birthday party of one of the neighborhoods well-known drug dealers, Dom (the rapper A$AP Rocky), Jib pleads with him to actually go - and to bring him and Diggy along. Malcolm's more interested in getting to spend some time with Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), a beautiful girl from his neighborhood who also happens to be an object of interest for Dom. Dom's birthday party is everything Malcolm and crew were expecting, Diggy and Jib got to dance and drink with the cool kids, while Malcolm got some valuable face time with Nakia. But when a major drug deal Dom is facilitating goes south quickly, things get violent, and Dom is forced to hide several large parcels of ecstasy in the one place he knows no one will look for it: Malcolm's backpack. It isn't until the next day that Malcolm notices that he has the drugs, and at that point, he's already in school, and he tells Diggy and Jib. The three friends suddenly find themselves in possession of something wanted by several different dangerous parties, and when they finally trace the drugs back to its original source, they get some bad news: they'll have to get rid of the drugs themselves, or risk the consequences. With the help of a local computer hacker and drug aficionado, Will (Blake Anderson), the former nerds find themselves drug dealers, setting up an online black market and selling molly for bitcoin.

Throughout Dope, Malcolm is put in positions where he's being forced to choose between his true self (a rap-loving nerd) and the self that society expects him to be. The neighborhood he lives in funnels all black men into a life of violence and crime. Malcolm sees himself as better, he even thinks he has a realistic chance of getting into Harvard. He proudly rejects the stereotypes of young black men living in the ghetto, and embraces his alternative lifestyle. Like the best satires, Dope understands that what's funny is usually quite close to what's tragic. It finds humor throughout the horror of gangland violence because it has a fundamental understanding of it, and the brilliance of Dope's screenplay is how it allows Malcolm to accept the more demonized aspects of his culture in order to grow and mature as a person. Moore's performance as Malcolm is key here. The 20-year-old actor has specialized as a song-and-dance so far in his very short career, but this is the first major starring role he's ever received. A lot of the film's humor comes from Moore's reactions to the absurdity that piles up around him, but his own comedic timing proves effective as he maneuvers around the script's more outlandish moments. But outside of comedy, Moore also gives Dope a much needed heart that is often left out of the film's more cynical ideas. Malcolm's evolution from naive teen to hardened drug dealer is the film's main arc, and Moore illustrates that wonderfully.

Around Moore, Revolori and Clemons provide a dynamic one-two punch as the plucky friends. Diggy's queerness is played for laughs when it's first introduced, but Clemons finds a center in the character, and turns the androgyny into a defiance that works well as a smaller example alongside Malcolm's larger story of further accepting yourself. Revolori, who was seen last year gallivanting alongside Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, is doing something much different here. In Grand Budapest, he was the straight man playing against the craziness of Fiennes and the rest of the ensemble cast. Here, Revolori takes on much more of a comedic responsibility, who finds a balance between jokes at his own expense and fending for himself. It's comical how poorly the film translates the three of them as musicians, but the songs they produce (written by Pharrell Williams) give the film an exciting soundtrack that adds to the film's slick coolness. The numerous original songs and unorthodox editing motifs give the film a sort of Tarantino-esque allure, but with a fresh twenty-first century twist. If anything, Dope just feels like a young director making a name for himself, not a 42-year-old filmmaker working on his fourth feature film. The previous movies on Famuyiwa's filmography don't prepare you for this, they illustrate the story of a director for hire. But Famuyiwa has written all of the scripts for his previous films as well, but has just now at this moment finally understood the importance of performing as an auteur.

Dope isn't perfect. A subplot involving an ecstasy-addicted sexpot played by Chanel Iman gives the film a good amount of unneeded, gratuitous nudity that betrays the film's more understanding ideas about race and gender. In that sequence and others, you can see strands of Famuyiwa's stance as a studio director making choices based on profit value. But the way this film juggles complicated concepts is refreshing within a cinematic climate that doesn't even discuss race outside of sobering drama. This film recalls the best work of Spike Lee, a provocative story told with a formalistic flourish and a strict opinion on the very issues it openly discusses. Most of all, it's legitimately funny, making jokes about things that most films would find only tribulation. It's speaks about the influence of drugs in poverty-infested neighborhoods with the same seriousness that it discusses Will - a white boy, through and through - and his right to be able to say the n-word. Dope is no bell hooks-ian deconstruction of black culture, but it's nice to see a film that celebrates the familiar story of a black kid coming of age in the ghetto without tainting it with the melodrama of tragedy. It's a foil to Boyz in the Hood, a companion piece to Do The Right Thing (which also found ways to be both hilarious and challenging), and a movie that everyone should see, if only because it covers topics that people are so afraid to talk about, especially these days.

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