With backing from Forest Whitaker and Pharrell Williams (the man responsible for the huge global hit “Happy”), this is one of the season’s hot new movies. It was a critical hit and audience favourite at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and an official selection at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight.
DOPE centres around Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high-school senior who is carefully surviving life in a tough Los Angeles neighbourhood while juggling college applications, academic interviews and final exams. Raised by a single mum, Lisa (Kimberly Elise), in “The Bottoms”, aka Inglewood, California, Malcolm is obsessed with ’90s hip hop, plays in a punk-rock band and dreams of going to Harvard. But Malcolm’s life is turned upside down after he and his best friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) attend a birthday party for a local drug dealer, Dom (A$AP Rocky). Really, they are just there in the name of lust, so Malcolm can pursue his crush on hottie Nakia (Zoë Kravitz). When a backroom drug deal goes bad and the cops raid the party, Dom secretly stashes a payload of trendy party drugs in Malcolm’s backpack … and then things really go awry.
As a teenager, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa never imagined that his experiences in a tough Los Angeles high school would someday inspire one of the most buzzed about films of the year. But that’s exactly what happened to the creator of the Sundance hit, which was filmed on location in and around Famuyiwa’s old stomping grounds.
Famuyiwa, the son of Nigerian immigrants, made an earlier autobiographical-based film, The Wood, in 1999. This time, he wanted to re-examine the place he grew up, with a new generation in mind. He says DOPE is like Risky Business for the social-media generation. What he is talking about is that through a series of crazy circumstances, Malcolm and his mates have to figure out a way to get out of a bad situation.
A fast paced, killer smart screenplay for the now generation, I was drawn in from the get-go. Irreverent and funny, this is no run of the mill picture centred on racial angst. The lead character is caught in the cross hairs of what goes down and he is up to the challenge. Yes, he is from a down and out area, but what I like about the way this is written is that his background doesn’t see him resigned to the path of least resistance. He is determined not to end up on the streets as another casualty and yet he is inadvertently drawn into the dope wars that are so pervasive. Outwardly naïve, he is, in fact, one savvy operator who has to learn to grow up mighty fast if he is to survive.
Apart from the scripting, it is the colourful personalities that make DOPE a standout. It is great to enter a cinema with no preconception of what it is you are about to see and to come out extolling the virtues of a production, just like I am here. As mentioned, DOPE was written, directed and is produced by Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar, Talk to Me, Our Family Wedding).
American-born of Jamaican descent, Shameik Moore has stamped himself as an actor of note to be carefully watched in coming years. He also has strong musical ability, having recorded several tracks for the film’s soundtrack with Grammy award winner Pharrell Williams. Forest Whitaker is compelling as the narrator and he also has producing credits, while Pharrell Williams is an executive producer and Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy, aka P. Diddy) serves as co-executive producer. It is no surprise that some big names are associated with a project like this – coming of age pulp fiction that was a real revelation.
Rated MA, DOPE scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Cast: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons and Zoë Kravitz
Release Date: 20 August, 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television