Dope is the perfect antithesis to the smug Risky Business thanks to its snappy plot, witty dialogue, and earnest performances, but its held back by the pitfalls of its own aesthetic and its though provoking message is marred by playing the race card.
Malcolm (Shameik Moore) is a geek, carefully surviving life in The Bottoms, a tough neighborhood in Inglewood, CA filled with gangsters and drugs dealers, while juggling his senior year of college applications, interviews and the SAT. His dream is to attend Harvard. A chance invitation to a big underground party leads Malcolm and his friends into a gritty adventure filed with offbeat characters and bad choices. If Malcolm can persevere, he’ll go from being a geek, to being dope, to ultimately being himself.
Dope offers an endearing coming of age story with a social message.
The movie tackles the classic struggle between identity and societal expectations, but with something more substantial. Instead of the typical story about a listless white teenager who gets cured by a his manic pixie girl, you get a black kid.
The snappy plot is entertaining as it focuses on the everyday struggles of a kid who’s too white for this neighborhood yet too ghetto everywhere else. Malcom has to contend with the high school hierarchy as a geek, defy racial conformity as a high school student into “white shit”, and fight stereotypes as an aspiring black Harvard man.
Shameik Moore is endearing as the plucky Malcolm. He has a nice group chemistry with Tony Revolori as Jib and Kiersey Clemons as Diggy. Together, they convey a real sense of camaraderie that you can see from misfits who have found each other. As the story progresses there’s also an array of offbeat characters that help sustain the energy of the movie.
The females though, don’t have much to do here as the become token of the men in their lives – the one-of-boys friend, the girlfriend, the seductress, and the mom.
It can be said that this a boy’s story after all. However, in Dope’s eagerness to please, the movie trapped itself in the conventions of comedy and hip hop. Malcolm’s narrative is filled with convenient coincidences to complicate his life. In the process, he becomes the person he is working hard to avoid and the stereotype that movie is trying to challenge – a drug dealer.
In an attempt to compensate for this, the third act of the movie turns into a motivational speech that is preachy and misguided. “If I was white, would you even have to ask me that question?” Malcolm types in the last line of his College essay when asked why he wants to study at Harvard. This question is not about race at all and designed to find out who the candidates are as well as what they’re capable of. It also makes you wonder about the whole movie itself – if Malcolm is white, would the movie set him on the same path to Harvard?
Dope ends in a neatly wrapped ending for Malcolm and Co. Overall, the movie barely manages to accomplish what it set out to do. It is a thought provoking piece about the conflict between societal expectations and race-related prejudices. It also invokes discussion about self identity and racial conformity. It was able to handle all these issues through a relatable coming of age story that doubles as an entertaining caper filled with amusing pop culture references and nice beats from Pharrell. However, it was also held back by its very own hip hop aesthetic and marred by a forced conclusion that uses the race card.
My Rating: 7/10