Director Rick Famuyiwa has made no bones about the fact that his latest feature, Dope, is based on the Tom Cruise coming-of-age classic Risky Business. Like Joel Goodsen in that film, his hero is also at the crossroads of his life, finds himself immersed in illegal activities and falls for a girl who is out of his league. Yes, there's more than an air of familiarity to it all, but what separates the movies is Famuyiwa's examination of the vast social disparity between the races and the moral compromises his character is forced to consider if he wants to better himself in a world where there are more roadblocks than opportunities.
Say what you will about Malcolm (a very good Shameik Moore), he may be a geek, but at least he owns it. Enamored with the hip-hop music of the '90s, the high school senior proudly dresses in clothes from the era, sports a high-top haircut that Kid 'N Play would envy and speaks of the social significance of the genre to anyone he can corner on the subject. He hangs with fellow nerds Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) who, like him, raise their geek hands in the air like they just don't care. How out of step are they with the times? Well, they form a punk rock band and are intent on spreading their philosophy of otherness to the masses, no matter how many looks of derision come their way.
Having never met his father and raised by his hardworking mother (an underused Kimberly Elise), Malcolm longs to better himself, and he's making no small plans. Yearning to be a man of Harvard, he's shooting for the moon. However, as is often the case with a teenage boy's best-laid plans, a girl throws a spanner into the works. Nakia (Zoe Kravitz) is worth attending a rave thrown by a local drug pusher over, which is exactly what Malcolm does, and while he does manage to dance with her for a brief moment, the price for doing so is high. The club is hit by a rival gang looking to steal a huge stash of dope, and in the confusion, the drugs are hidden in Malcolm's backpack, a burden he doesn't discover until the next day.
The rest of the film deals with Malcolm's efforts to get rid of this potentially lucrative hot potato. More than a few hoods and thugs set out to take it from him, a delivery to the intended owner goes awry and an ingenious solution to the problem is devised. Credit Famuyiwa, who also wrote the screenplay, for keeping the action moving at a steady pace while maintaining a clear narrative line. With so many balls in the air, the potential for the movie becoming mired in a far-too-busy plot is avoided for the most part.
Courtesy Open Road Films.
However, the filmmaker relies far too heavily on coincidence to keep the story moving. You would think that Los Angeles was a village of 150 people, what with the fortuitous encounters Malcolm has with just the right (or wrong) people he needs to meet. It all becomes a bit too much, while the film's cavalier attitude toward gun violence is unsettling and borders on being disrespectful. These gaffes can be forgiven to a certain extent, thanks to Famuyiwa's examination of racial stereotypes. Early on, Malcolm resents the implication from his narrow-minded guidance counselor that he's nothing more than a stereotype, and the character's insistence on being his own man and setting lofty goals is refreshing and commendable.
That he's forced to actually become all that he denies in an effort to escape his circumstances speaks to the limited opportunities he and his peers are faced with. Though the film is framed as a comedic coming-of-age story, the indictment it levels at our society's narrow-minded perceptions is damning. Much like its protagonist, Dope is able to overcome our preconceived notions to deliver a singular, vital message.