Dope is the best film I caught at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Director-writer Rick Famuyiwa debuts a startlingly biting, hilarious, and altogether riveting work about minority teenagers in Inglewood, California. It defies convention and aggressively sticks up a middle finger to those that typecast or stereotype. Instead, it embraces diversity and asserts that pigeon-holing is an idiotic, archaic, and dull measure used by the weak. The film features a breakthrough lead performance from Shameik Moore, who plays Malcolm, a genius that wants to apply to Harvard despite everyone telling him he doesn’t stand a chance. He’s an ambitious boy that wants to become his own man, but in his neighborhood that usually means aligning with a gang or starting to deal drugs. He doesn’t want to do either. Instead, he just wants to do nerdy things with his friends, Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori). The former is a tomboy lesbian that often gets mistaken for a guy while the latter prides himself on being 14% black, a hilariously specific statistic that he uses for strange forms of justification.
The three students become embroiled in a drug deal gone bad at a dealer’s birthday party, ultimately falling into more than they can handle as the dealer gets taken to jail and Malcolm cannot escape trouble. The resulting film is a teen drug caper that feels like a thematic mixture of ’90s hood films, the technologically savvy modern culture (the film features the most effective use of Bitcoins in narrative to date), and situational comedies of the 1980s. It’s an eclectic throwback to old-fashioned storytelling with the desire to demand a continued conversation about race in a culture that has clearly not advanced as much as expected. Famuyiwa’s film is intelligent and beautiful, a comedic mishmash of various gags that all work tremendously in the lampoonish landscape that Malcolm and Co. navigate. Factor in a romantic pursuit of Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), who stands as a woman discontent with her current state and wants to pursue more education and find a better life, and the film is its own powerful breed.
Dope ultimately cares deeply and passionately about its characters and insists that race plays a prevalent part in how people see you, their expectations of you, and some people’s inherent inability to see past prejudice. A monologue near the end of the film heavily alludes to Trayvon Martin, and it’s the film’s most dynamic, pitch-perfect scene. Dope miraculously navigates serious racial themes, a love story, and comedy with the vivacity of a confident director in his prime. That’s why it comes as such a surprise that Famuyiwa is a young director with endless potential, a man that understands the necessary craft behind a character-driven story with diversity not just in race but also sexuality. Diggy and Jib, and the actors that play them (Clemons is phenomenally funny and Revolori expands upon his acting ability he established with The Grand Budapest Hotel), are outrageous characters that work alongside the likes of Workaholics‘ Blake Anderson and Short Term 12 breakout Keith Stanfield. Dope is an absolute blast of a film, an enormous, overwhelmingly great feature.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)