Tuesday, June 30, 2015

DOPE (2015)

Written & Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. June 21, 2015 5:30PM

"Dope" may not seem like your average teen comedy for you will find hip-hop clubs, gangsters, drug-related shoot-outs and the frequent use of the N-word. Oh, and a cast made up mostly by people of color. The writer/directer Rick Famuyiwa has made a visionary film that wants to find a place between the popular urban dramas of the 90's like "Boyz In The Hood", "Juice" and "Dead Presidents" while offering something deeper than the broad humor of Tyler Perry movies. "Dope" succeeds, for the most part, in expanding our ideas of what African-American cinema can be and opens viewers eyes to a world that is rarely represented.

In his first film role, Shameik Moore plays Malcolm Adekanbi, a high school senior. He lives in Inglewood with his single mother (Kimberly Elise) and doesn't remember his father who went back to Africa when he was an infant. Malcolm is not what you would consider one of the cool kids, with his hair shaped in a flat-top fade and wearing 90's hip-hop clothing unironically. His two close friends are fellow outsiders; Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a butch lesbian whose family continues to try and pray away her condition along with the anxious, Jig (Tony Revolori, last seen in "The Grand Budapest Hotel") who is small and inconspicuous. Together, they play in a punk-rock band, Awreeoh (get it?) trying to express themselves in a way that only nerds can understand.

Malcolm is a straight-A student and wants to get in to Harvard. But his school counselor Mr. Bailey (Bruce Beatty) informs him that his college essay on Ice Cube's "Today was a Good Day" is not going to get him there. After being advised to write something about himself, Malcolm is at a loss.

Like many of us at the time, Malcolm and his friends are just trying to get out of high school in one piece but being considered weird makes you an easy target. Not long after barely escaping a school thug trying to steal his shoes, Malcolm nearly loses his bike to the local drug dealers but catches the attention of their leader, Dom (hip-hop artist, A$AP Rocky) because of his unusual style. The two soon bond over music and ideas before Dom has Malcolm go relay a message to a girl to attend his birthday party. Taking one look at this attractive young lady, Nakia (ZoĆ« Kravitz),  Malcolm wants to make his own private plans with her but feels far too uncool to make a move. Nakia is also curious about this odd kid in front of her. She agrees to go only if Malcolm will be there.

Being underage poses an obstacle but Malcolm is determined and drags Diggy and Jig along with him. Once inside the nightclub, the trio party hard and Malcolm even gets a dance with Nakia. Gun-fire breaks up the festivities and the next day, Malcolm discovers his backpack filled with a gun and thousands of dollars worth of Dom's drugs.

With a phone call from a locked-up Dom informing him what to do with the stash, the rest of the film has Malcolm trying to get rid of it before a rival gang catches up to him first. While there's much that happens in between this treacherous race, (and at times overwhelms the film), Mr. Famuyiwa keeps the action moving smoothly with sharp insight and imaginative direction. In between the myriad of high-speed chases, dangerous shoot-outs and wildly deranged characters, there are sweet, touching moments and dark but very funny humor. The cast in uniformly excellent with Famuyiwa also utilizing fascinating non-actors like model, Chanel Iman and rapper, Tyga which helps add to the unconventional nature of the film.

The director had some high-profile talent to help him put this together with Sean Combs, Pharrell Williams and Forest Whitaker (who also provided narration) serving as producers. Like Mr. Famuyiwa's feature debut, "The Wood", "Dope" examines life on the streets of Inglewood where the director grew-up with people just trying to get through each day in their tough surroundings. Despite the difficulties, there is still a sense of community and honor to be found in the neighborhood.

Far from perfect but I think "Dope" ranks up there with other classic teen comedies like "The Breakfast Club" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". While there is much more perilous menace and edginess here than those films, it's the film's heart and intelligence that makes it truly fit comfortably beside them.