'Dope': Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A funny and often intelligent crowd-pleaser about three geeks who get smart about drug-dealing

This feature from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa ('The Wood') is headlined by breakout star Shameik Moore and produced by Forest Whitaker.

Three geeks go gangsta in Dope, the vibrant and entertaining fourth feature from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa (Our Family Wedding). Like his debut feature, The Wood, this film is set in his hometown of Inglewood, Calif., and focuses on three fast friends, here nerdy kids who combine prepping their university applications and SATs with a sideline selling a huge stash of drugs that accidentally ends up in their lap — or rather, their backpack. Like Fruitvale Station, the film was produced by Forest Whitaker (who also cameos as the narrator) and shot by Rachel Morrison, with the latter's dynamic camera work adding energy, color and verve. Bouncy, with snappy dialog to spare and a great young cast headed by breakout star Shameik Moore, this is a crowd-pleaser from start to finish. Unsurprisingly, the film has already sparked something of a bidding war at Sundance.

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Malcolm (Moore), with his flat-top haircut, vintage clothes and BMX bike, looks like a runaway from the 1990s, which is exactly how he likes it. Like him, his buddies, the thin-as-a-reed Jib (Tony Revolori, the bellboy from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and butch lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons, Transparent) love '90s hip-hop and other "shit white people like," such as "Donald Glover and good grades." Their geek status at school means that the adult staff leaves them alone but they are picked on by the cool kids, who bully Malcolm into handing over his cool sneakers in an early, very kinetic chase scene.

The main plot is set in motion when, after bluffing their way into a party for a local hoodlum, Dom (A$AP Rocky), they run out of the club as the fete devolves into a gunfight only to discover the next day that Malcolm's backpack is now full of drugs and a gun. From here springs a cascading series of events that keeps piling on one delicious twist after another as the initially clueless kids try to return the drugs to their owner — but confusion arises about whom that might actually be.

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An interlude at the house of two rich kids (model Chanel Iman and Quincy Brown, the son of the film's co-executive producer, Sean "Diddy" Combs) results in a hilarious set piece that involves driving on molly, a conversation about "lunch" (a code word for drugs) at a hamburger joint that leads to a shoot-out, and a necessary pee break that almost breaks the Internet. The madcap plotting and energy here temporarily turn things into something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon (almost a necessity since otherwise the frequent gun violence would turn this into a much darker movie).  

Circumstances later lead the kids to try and sell the drugs themselves, and part of the film's charm — as well as a lot of its humor — is derived from the contrast between the nerdy overachievers who want to leave their neighborhood behind and go to college and the illegal activities they find themselves engaging in. It's not every film that can turn the concept of a slippery slope into a repeatedly used and hilarious punch line, and Famuyiwa's dialogues are often not only funny but also sharp and smart. A notable exception is the way race plays a role in two scenes, the first a discussion of why white people can't use the N-word — which the black characters (including Jib, who claims he's 14 percent African) here use more often than articles and verbs — which is so drawn out (terminating in a weak and literal punch line) that it starts to feel like sermonizing, while the second is the way race factors in to Malcolm's Harvard application essay, which is certainly truthful but lacks any kind of argument around it that would demonstrate his innate intelligence.

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The decision to also make the protags play in their own music group feels a little too much like a movie conceit (how many real-life geeks have their own bands in high school?), and their songs, written by Pharrell Williams, will no doubt help market the film but don't feel like they could've been written by these three kids, however brainy.

That said, the film's overall energy, which is reinforced by Morrison's dynamic camera and cutting from Lee Haugen, and performances are spunky enough to almost always temporarily suspend disbelief when required. Onscreen in practically every frame, Moore (Joyful Noise, Incredible Crew), in his first lead role, is clearly the star of the show, shouldering that burden with enviable ease. His Malcolm, the son of a single mother (Kimberly Elise), is an energetic young man full of contradictions who's believable as a straight-A student who can outsmart gangsters as well as someone who's intimidated by class bullies or any girl with any interest in him, such as Iman's drugged-out sex fiend or the sweet neighborhood girl that Zoë Kravitz imbues with more personality than she must've had on the page. Revolori and Clemons, meanwhile, ace their sidekick roles and are the MVPs of the large supporting cast. Production and especially costume design have a ball working in references to the 1990s.

Production companies: Significant Productions, I Am Other
Cast: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Kimberly Elise, Keith Stanfield, Blake Anderson, Zoë Kravitz, A$AP Rocky, Chanel Iman
Writer-director: Rick Famuyiwa
Producers: Forest Whitaker, Nina Yang Bongiovi
Executive producers: Michael Y. Chow, Rick Famuyiwa
Co-executive producer: Sean Combs
Director of photography: Rachel Morrison
Production designer: Scott Falconer
Costume designer: Patrik Milani
Editor: Lee Haugen
Music: Pharrell Williams, Germaine Franco
Casting: Kim Coleman
Sales: WME

No rating, 105 minutes