The teen comedy/drama is a genre that’s been told and retold for decades that one wonders how many times can we see variations of roughly the same coming of age plot and not reach a point of diminishing returns.
Back in 1983, Tom Cruise rode a red Porsche to fame in “Risky Business” — one of the few teen comedy/dramas to channel the kind of inward looking psychology of “The Graduate.” “Risky Business” looked like a B-movie teen sex comedy from the trailer, but the film was also about piercing a bubble of rich white privilege and enter a world of prostitution and pimps. While the depiction of both was fairly unrealistic (hey, it’s a sex comedy, remember?), the film did do something that was novel for the genre: it made its main character understand what it’s like to have a serpent in the garden and eat from the proverbial tree of knowledge.
I bring up “Risky Business” because it intersects with wildly inventive “Dope.” Writer and Director, Rick Famuyiwa, has crafted a kind of “Risky Business” for 2015. The plot is fairly conventional (like I wrote earlier, there’s only so many variations you can wring out of this genre) and involves a trio of friends who live in part of Los Angeles where gangs, drug dealers, bullies, and working-class folks dwell. Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are a minority in their high school. That’s because they are geeks who do their homework, are in a pop punk band, and get high SAT scores. They are the ones who have dreams of going to college at places like Harvard. The chances the Malcolm will get to Harvard seem good, but his personal statement needs work — even though he thinks it’s clever and makes a point (he writes about rapper Ice Cube). Oh, did I mention that Malcolm and his friends are obsessed with ’90s hip hop? Well, that’s essential because the time warp quality to the movie is a nice look back at a time that doesn’t get mentioned in glowing terms — especially in music and culture. Part of that is the flash in the pan nature of hip hop music. Artists were releasing music so fast in the quest to push the genre in this or that direction that songs would end up as flavors of the month and then fade into the void. Only recently have radio stations (and now films) gone back and resurrected many of those songs for both a younger generation and those who grew up on those songs, but are now in their 30s and 40s. Late ’80s to late ’90s hip hop really frames the soundtrack, the dialog and the look of “Dope” (even though it takes place in 2015). Malcolm’s obsession with what he thinks is the golden era of hip hop is both celebrated and critiqued in the film. But the movie is not only about hip hop. It’s about Malcolm getting pushed out of his bubble to learn about the nature of money, power, corruption, manipulation, and the use of business smarts to achieve status in his neighborhood.
The film’s title has multiple meanings and all are explored in the course of the movie. If you look at the title and think of a drug reference, you’re right. If you look at the title of the move and see a term that means cool, you’re right. If you look at the title of the film and think of someone who makes poor choices in life, you’re also right. Malcolm is drawn into the world of drugs and has to use the underground methods available to him to move the product to pay off a kind of debt. Malcolm being a smart kid knows a thing or two about computers and uses the dark Internet of Tor browsers, bitcoin, and social media to create a marketing plan to sell the drug that have fallen into his possession after the cops raid the party of a drug dealer that Malcolm and his friends attended.
I won’t give away much more of the plot because that would ruin the surprises that come along the way. Rick Famuyiwa’s script is predictable at times, but that’s because he’s treading down a well-worn road. However, he’s able to pepper the story with many satisfying twists that keep the action fresh, the arc of the characters interesting, and the story thrilling at times.
“Dope” is one of those unfortunate films that’ll get lost during awards season. It’s unfortunate because mid-summer releases are rarely considered for their achievements. So, if you’re in the mood for a film that deviates from most summer films, see “Dope.”