Ubiquitous though they may be, it’s damn hard to make a decent teen movie. The “growing up n’ getting out” or “growing up n’ getting laid” structures have all been worn pretty thin and it’s hard not to watch the movies as mere genre exercises rather than anything representing real life. That’s why ‘Dope’ was such charmer at Sundance and will continue to be one off the festival circuit. It hits all those beats, but in fresh ways and has something to say even if it only tries to say those things in fleetingly entertaining ways.
Shameik Moore is our hero Malcolm. Along with his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori of ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ fame), they’re the resident geeks at their rundown high school in Inglewood, California. They’re into the typical geeky stuff like manga, but are primarily obsessed with ’90s hip-hop. The trio dress like extras from a ‘House Party’ sequel and the closest they get to gang violence is defending Will Smith’s early tracks to a local drug dealer (A$ap Rocky). The trio are social misfits, but also the only kids in their neighborhood who care about grades and college. So they’re really A-OK.
Things go all topsy-turvy when Malcolm brings his pals to a party to get close to a cute girl named Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), and soon he accidentally ends up in the possession of a massive bag of MDMA. Malcolm and his friends end up blackmailed into selling the drug to white kids through Bitcoin thanks to the help of ‘Woraholics’ weirdo Blake Anderson, but it’s all in the name of staying safe and helping Malcolm get into Harvard. The good vibes never really go away, even when things get criminal.
With all its flashy style and ’90s nostalgia, ‘Dope’ feels like the work of a first-time filmmaker. However, it’s actually from writer/director Rick Famuyiwa (‘The Wood’) and is inarguably his best movie to date. In a way, that makes sense because Famuyiwa was actually a part of the ’90s pop culture that these kids fetishize, so the filmmaker gets away with revising his own youthful memories without seeming out of touch.
The first half hour or so of the film is pretty much a pure delight. Using a voiceover heavy music video style (some ‘Pop Up Video’ bubbles even show up), Famuyiwa toys around gleefully with his world, milking maximum comedy potential without ever stretching too far into the realm of cartoon exaggeration. Oddly enough, when the film moves into a grittier and darker place, the director strains to retain a sense of reality. The old-school ‘hood crime movie material feels like stylized genre riffing and shifts the balance of ‘Dope’ toward slapstick and melodrama. It all comes back around to a moralizing conclusion that’s pat, if effective. The flick works, just not necessarily in all the charmingly real ways it promises at first.
Much has been made of the bidding war that ‘Dope’ sparked at Sundance and the surprise of Sony dropping no less than $7 million on the indie. After seeing the movie, that starts to make sense. Much like this year’s other big Sundance favorite ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl‘, ‘Dope’ is really a mainstream picture that finally found its proper home. After all, it’s a poppy teen movie with quotable dialogue, quirky pop culture references, celebrity cameos, and a killer soundtrack. It’s the type of movie that would have been made on a small budget for a studio 15 years ago and then marketed for mainstream success.
Unfortunately, studios are too focused on gambling with tentpole blockbusters to make movies like ‘Dope’ anymore, but the success the film has received so far at least suggests that times might be changing. Technological advances mean that movies this slick and pleasing can be made independently. When they work, maybe studios will start nabbing them up afterwards rather than producing them in the first place. It’s an odd way of getting this sort of stuff to screens. However, in the case of ‘Dope’, it worked. This clever, funny, poignant and satisfying throwback teen movie eventually fell into Sony’s hands. Hopefully, that will happen more and more to similar flicks in the future.