Posted by Joel Copling on June 19, 2015

"Dope" opens as it only can--with an explanation of the three alternate definitions of the term that makes up the title--and goes on to prove that the film is a manifestation of all three, for better and worse. This is a surprisingly strong movie in its first act, about appealing characters in an amusing stylization of modern-day Inglewood as a representation of its 1990s-era counterpart through a celebration of the hip-hop culture of twenty-odd years ago. Its main character is an original, stand-up guy in a neighborhood where that is, shall we say, not exactly expected (although, with one exception, everyone present here is more intelligent beyond their facades--a relief, no doubt, in this era of obvious characterizations and caricatures). The movie itself is about the silly, convoluted plot in which this character and his amusing cronies find themselves, which is a shame.

That leads us to the first of those definitions--the term often used to refer to drugs either by those who partake of them or by authority figures, specifically in this case MDMA (more commercially known as "Molly"). Malcolm (Shameik Moore in an auspicious feature debut performance), who sports a hairstyle most notably attributed to MC Hammer and clothing style that might have benefited Steve Urkel, is our likable lead, with aspirations toward Harvard (only his acception letter, which according to a guidance counselor is shot through with a bit of arrogance, stands in his way) until he is invited to a party led by a local drug dealer named Dom (A$ap Rocky), who plants a good amount of Molly and a gun on Malcolm as he escapes.

Through a misunderstanding that he is communicating with that same drug dealer, Malcolm ends up in the middle of a turf war between Dom and De'Andre (Tyga). Malcolm and his buddies--the partly African-American Jib (Tony Revolori) and the intentionally boyish, wildly lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons)--must evade both groups and also figure out a way to do away with the stash. Here is where the second definition of the term comes in--that of "a stupid person." Their ultimate answer is an amusing one that coincides with Malcolm's college dreams in more ways than merely one, but it's a shame that this movie doesn't have more on its mind. Flashes of this come through, but only flashes.

It is most apparent in some of the conversation that place, and it's surprisingly exploring dialogue, too. When they have no one else to whom to turn at one point, they call upon the services of a white friend named Will Sherwood (Blake Anderson in a fun role), who looks like Carrot Top and cannot understand why the playful use of a certain racial shorthand might compel Diggy to slap him (On principle, she replies). This sparks a discussion and engagement in the term that unfortunately takes the backseat in lieu of the driving narrative, which is never really engaging. There are moments of gravity among the levity of the plot (at least three shootouts, for instance), but it mostly just moseys along without much urgency.

I almost forgot about the third definition of the term, which refers to the slang involving something cool or trendy. "Dope" is ultimately a fun call-back to the music (which scores the film on occasion) and style of the 1990s, but evocation of a period is really the only compelling level on which it is working. Even the solid development of Malcolm's character gets pushed to the side for an on-the-nose, fourth-wall-breaking, climactic recital to the camera of where his character has gotten by the end of the movie. This is a movie that is clearly onto something and has a clear point to make, but there is a softness in its approach of relevant social issues that impedes some stunted growth.

Film Information

Shameik Moore (Malcolm), Tony Revolori (Jib), Kiersey Clemons (Diggy), Kimberly Elise (Lisa Hayes), Chanel Iman (Lily), Tyga (De'Andre), Blake Anderson (Will Sherwood), Zoe Kravitz (Nakia), A$ap Rocky (Dom).

Directed and written by Rick Famuyiwa.

Rated R (language, drug content, sexuality/nudity, violence).

115 minutes.

Released on June 19, 2015.