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USA 2015
Directed by
Rick Famuyiwa
103 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4 stars


Synopsis:  High school geeks, Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori), are best friends who live in the aptly named The Bottoms, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Inglewood, California. Aside from his obsession with 90’s Hip Hop, Malcolm has aspirations to go to Harvard and refuses to be deterred by his social disadvantage, the stigma of the local drug culture or the defeatist attitude of his teacher. There’s no doubt that Malcolm is smart enough to achieve his goal but an encounter with Dom (Rakim Mayers), the local drug dealer lands him and his friends in a pretty serious situation involving a gun, a bag full of drugs and some heavy-duty thugs. But returning the contraband is not as easy as it seems and brings them into contact with a strange assortment of characters who live at the extreme fringes of this dangerous world.

According to the opening titles of this fast, funny and smart film, there are three meanings for the word dope; it can refer to drugs, it can refer to you being an idiot, but it can also refer to you being cool. As it turns out, Dope is about all three definitions. Teenage high school stories about groups of geeky friends who find themselves out of their depth in a world they mostly fear and avoid are nothing new, so to make a mark film-makers tackling the area need to find a fresh take on well worn ideas and employ sharp and clever film-making with outstanding performances. Famuyiwa and his mostly young cast achieve this by striking an almost perfect balance between very funny writing, engaging performances and a cracking pace on screen that uses a lot of stylish editing ideas that borrows from the best of the story telling technique of a film like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels  without ever feeling like a clone.

Of course, the measuring sticks for a comedy crime story are whether or not it’s actually funny – and this film really is – and whether it can create a criminal underworld that is malevolent enough to be believable without being undermined by the comedy – and this film really does. But beyond this, Dope has something to say about the resilience of young people and their ability to overcome disadvantage and prejudice and to keep their goals and dreams intact in the face of overwhelming odds. We see this literally, in the way Malcolm and his friends use a combination of intellect and street-smarts to outwit their adversaries, and we see it symbolically in how Malcolm’s faith in his own abilities and his belief in his right to a better life carries him through the darker moments and even rubs off on Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) who, despite being Dom’s main squeeze, becomes Malcolm’s love interest.

In addition to Moore as Malcolm, performances in this film are uniformly strong, especially Clemons as Diggy the sassy lesbian who is constantly being mistaken for a boy and has an hilarious position on the propriety of using the N word when referring to people of colour.  Minor characters are equally strong, taking every opportunity to stamp themselves on this film without over-acting or upstaging the rest of the cast. The excellent soundtrack by Germaine Franco is only made better by the contribution of Pharrell Williams who builds on other soundtrack successes such as the Despicable Me franchise, to create a driving pulse beneath the images on screen, especially in his work as ghostwriter of the original songs from Malcolm’s band, the knowingly named Awreeoh.  Plus, the movie manages to make good use of conventions like social media and bitcoins without those ideas becoming quagmires in which the story bogs down. Yes, there are a few moments where coincidence and the suspension of disbelief might push the friendship, but the film as a whole always seems to give us a reason to forgive these minor shortcomings.

Earlier this year, we saw a similar story of three teenage misfits who stumble into a life-threatening criminal conspiracy in Stephen Daldry’s film, Trash.   Whilst it started out well, it fell apart in its final throes. Where Trash fell down, Dope excels, paying off our investment in these great characters and their story with an ending that is triumphant, satisfying and has something to say to us.




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