DOPE. Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, Zoë Kravitz. Directed by Rick Famuyiwa. 103 minutes. MA15+ (Strong coarse language, sexual references and drug references).
This film from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa is laden with confidence. It oozes it, and embraces its story and characters and the environment they inhabit wholeheartedly. The result is occasionally racy, but it is loaded with humour, fun and important messages about the difficult lives facing so many young African-Americans today.
Our protagonists are threefold: Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). The trio are self-proclaimed geeks, more clever than hailing from ‘The Bottoms’ in Inglewood, California would suggest, and obsessed with 90’s music and culture. They play in a punk band together, named Awreeoh (pronounced like the chocolate biscuit). As another character says, their costumes – terrifically designed by Patrik Milani – look as though they’ve just ‘stepped out of a DeLorean’.
Malcolm is the de facto leader, a straight A’s student who has an interview for Harvard line up. Shameik Moore totally embodies the role, which should be a breakout for the young actor, who contributes a lot of the film’s swagger. Tony Revolori, who plays Jib, was last seen as a co-lead in Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. His comic timing has not dulled a bit since then, and he displays a gift for physical comedy too. Diggy is the token girl in the friendship group, though as a lesbian, she pines to be noticed by a cute girl just as much as her two pals. Performer Kiersey Clemons displays a real sweetness, which hides a playful willingness to raunchily joke around with her male friends.
After the group get inadvertently invited to a drug dealer’s birthday party (played by rapper A$AP Rocky), they somehow end up with a backpack full of the state’s finest MDMA (a party drug) and a pistol. When a meeting to return the gear to its rightful owner turns out to be a set up, and after a second appointment goes wrong in a surprising twist, the friends have no choice but to the peddle the drugs and pass the cash back to the dealers.
Throw in some romantic subplots, and loads of commentary on the plight of black American youths, and it’s frankly dazzling that the film crams so much in to its 103 minutes (dare I say too much?). It explores the racist expectations placed on its protagonists by wider society, but it keeps its observations accessible with plenty of humour. Editor Lee Haugen was rightly awarded Best Editing at the Sundance Film Festival this year, and he keeps the plot buzzing along with some very tech-savvy compositions featuring YouTube videos and hashtags galore.
With terrific music (including originals from artist Pharrell Williams plus some classic 90’s rap and hip-hop) and a fresh voice to boot, ‘Dope’ is one of those films which may come to define a generation if they choose to embrace it. Regardless, it’s a good time at the cinema.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 20.