Initially coming off as a rather sharp and cheeky teen comedy, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope prefers style over substance. What is set up in the first act as a charming if not typical story (a quirky black teen & his two pals get unwillingly drawn into neighbourhood drug wars) becomes dizzying and poorly executed in the latter half. It’s a shame; the trio of actors at the core – Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori and Kiersey Clemons – shine bright. But the shroud of failed promise seems to let down this pastiche of 1990s black coming-of-age comedy. It starts with a boom: Forest Whitaker plays narrator (although the convention quickly dropped) in introducing our hero trio: Malcolm (Moore), Jib (Revolori) and Diggy (Clemons). The trio hail from The Bottoms, a rough section of Inglewood, California steeped in crime. They cling to the glory of 90s hip-hop and fashion and – most notably – seek to rise above the restrictions of race and class.
Things go south when they get invited along to a party held by local hoodlum Dom (a star turn for Rakim Mayers, better knows as rapper A$AP Rocky). Dom’s drug deal goes sour and he stashes his stolen loot into Malcolm’s bag. When Malcolm discovers the loot, he, Jib and Diggy decide to sell it as quickly as possible and avoid further trouble. Dope suffers from a classic storytelling issue: it’s built around an image or moment but is never believably extrapolated to sustain the full-length format. Here, writer-director Famuyiwa gives us three geeks all stuck in the nostalgia of 90s hip-hop. Every aspect of them is aesthetically stylised and they strive towards “white” ideals like transcending the criminally hermetic circumstances of their neighbourhood and going to college. It’s fun to see teenagers revel in, emulate and study the culture that arguably made their world possible. They appreciate their cultural heritage; Famuyiwa seems intent on injecting this snappy nostalgia into every moment outside of the trio and it ends up muddling the narrative drive. By focusing on the gimmick of old school, the story he attempts to tell becomes nothing but a jumble of tropes and ideas.
Rival gang members wield guns and track the trio, a single mother who is forced to raise her son alone, white friends who want to be as cool as the black kids and even the simple casting of contemporary hip-hop artists to act as touchstones of “coolness” seem to swirl amidst very fractured storytelling. We’re always held back from seeing the real goal until its too late. The cartoonish journey of the kids through Inglewood feel like a throwback but there’s no cohesion – in short: what’s going on here? Perhaps Famuyiwa hoped that we’d get off on the colourful natures of Malcolm, Jib and Diggy so much that we’d be willing to ignore the plot holes, glib development and thorny tropes. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In the end, Dope becomes a daffy pastiche that simply doesn’t make the cut.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem