See all those pictures on the internet with the quote “started from the bottom and now we’re here”? The Sundance attention-getter, Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker-produced film embraces that notion to the letter and delivers viewers a coming-of-age tale as vibrant and whimsical as it is overstuffed and fragmented.
Malcolm Adekanbi (Shameik Moore) is a Nigerian-American student in a neighborhood called, yep, The Bottoms in Inglewood, California. Perhaps the name is no coincidence: there is a shoe snatcher in school, there are bicycle thieves and plenty of drug dealers like Dom (A$AP Rocky) around every corner. Now Dom is having a birthday party, and thanks to the persuasion of his friends – Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) – plus the charm of Dom’s girlfriend Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), Malcolm attends it. Instead of having fun, however, he is swiftly thrown into the wild world of crime when gunshots replace the bass and drugs are snuck into Malcolm’s backpack. Guess that application to Harvard, or an exit out of The Bottoms, and the rise of Malcolm’s punk-rock band Awreeoh will have to wait…
Part crime, part drama, part self-searching and part social commentary – much like Malcolm himself Dope has to juggle with a lot of elements, perhaps too many for its own good. In what perhaps an effort to be the jack of all trades, the film is a schizophrenic instead; it zaps between humorous and violent or now serious then lighthearted faster than Barry Allen, having Moore as the only adhesive uniting the act (the actor appears in almost every scene). By only glancing rather than delving into any particular aspect of the story, apparent are Malcolm’s hurdles but not the sense that they’re heightened or lowered – they’re just there, not asking viewers to invest anything and all barreling towards their moment of resolution.
It’s disappointing, frankly, because all our performers deserve something more focused. In his breakout performance, actor/singer Shameik Moore proves he is the perfect choice being the outcast, dorky and hopeful high-schooler. Surrounding him is an equally strong ensemble that adds nothing but sweetness into the already pleasing humor – deadpan Clemons complimenting the fidgety Revolori, Blake Anderson as the drug expert that was banned from saying the n-word, Quincy Brown as the hip guy who might have been watching too many hip-hop videos and Rocky as the drug dealer with personal crises. And to balance out the comedy there is the tender Kravitz, who viewers don’t see too much of because the script drops her subplot midway and picks it up in the end like an afterthought. Surprisingly funny in her debut but starring in a peculiarly written role – obvious eye-candy in Dope rather than a character in Malcolm’s story – is Victoria Secret’s angel Chanel Iman, who everyone will see a lot of… and off.
With Pharrell Williams’ involved, the principal characters’ love of music (in particular “Yo! MTV Raps”) is shown through wonderful song choices that make up made-to-be-memorable music moments like Santigold’s “GO!” when the birthday party turns sour or any of Awreeoh’s performances. Combine that with Rick Famuyiwa’s direction – brisk pacing, hilarious writing cater to this generation (a thesis about Ice Cube’s “Good Day,” memes, Bitcoins, a withdrawal turns into a philosophy session, etc.) and deft use of film techniques (split-screen, rewinding, narration by Forest Whitaker that is a tad overdone) – and Rachel Morrison’s always colorful cinematography, Dope is the kind of sugar one’s eyes and ears will highly approve… even when the pedantic break-the-fourth-wall final act clashes with the rest in terms of portrayal, topical as it may be.
Dope doesn’t quite live up to its street definition, or toward the high it can achieve, but it’s never dumb and a hoot until the last minute. However, disjointed and messy nature aside, if from the beginning Rick Famuyiwa’s latest wants to search its own identity just like Malcolm did, who’s to say he has failed?