One thing that you learn when you’re a cinephile is that masterpieces are not always found where we expect them to be found, and very often we are taken by surprise, because something about a film doesn’t strike one as being particularly brilliant, but hidden in the often unassuming exterior, there lurks something extraordinary. Dope is one of the most pleasant surprises of recent memory, because it just seemed to be far too niche to be widely popular, but it proved to be absolutely brilliant, and most certainly something special.
The film concerns three teenagers – Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersy Clemons), self-professed 1990s rap geeks, who are willing to do anything to create a solid and prosperous future for themselves. Of course, growing up in an area of California rife with drug dealers and crime, they soon find themselves thrown deep into the world of crime, with their only option to become infamous drug dealers, using their intelligence and cunning to make sure that they don’t get caught and thus destroy their future, as they are good kids that are just hoping to have good futures, but also have fun on the way there. Their days of listening to hip-hop, playing in their punk band (named Awreeoh, which is such a silly but genius name) and generally being the unpopular kids are replaced by hardcore drug production, which they have to hide in case of being caught, but the irony is that their classmates are enjoying the very drug they are being supplied by the very people they terrorize. Hip-hop culture, along with modern vices, form the backdrop to this highly contemporary and fascinating look at this generation, who want to be individuals without actually being too different from their peers.
A film like Dope is special because it allows the introduction of new talents into the world of cinema. I am going to try and keep this review straightforward by not delving too deep into the social message and implications of Dope, but this film is one lead by three young actors of colour, one of them female. Unfortunately, there are not many widely accessible films these days that feature such a diverse and interesting cast – and despite the fact that this film portrays a particular demographic and social group, it is also really appealing, because it is far more than just a film about a group of people, it is about humanity and this generation as a whole, and the message this film portrays is displayed through carefully constructed social commentary, but also through making an appealing and endearing film that will be adored by more people than I believe director Rick Famuyiwa originally imagined that it would be.
The best part about Dope is the performances, and as I mentioned previously, small films like Dope introduce new talents to our screens. Shameik Moore gives one of the most charismatic and interesting performances from a young actor I’ve seen in a while. Constantly charming, but also very intelligent and deeply complex, his performance as Malcolm is intensely endearing, and he takes a character that would otherwise be simply passable by many other actors and transforms it into a star-making performance. Luckily, this was not Tony Revolori’s big introduction to cinema, as he was one of the leads of the incredible The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014, and I am very happy with the director Revolori’s career is taking, and Dope is a complete juxtaposition to his performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel – and the fact that Revolori was able to perform flawlessly, whether in a period comedy set in a far-off (and fictional) European country, or a contemporary crime comedy about hip-hop and poverty – in a way, Revolori has been in two great films about class-differences and society’s prejudices against those in lower social positions (this isn’t really important, but its a connection I picked up). Finally, Kiersey Clemons may very well be my favorite part of this film, as her performance as Diggy was heartbreaking, hilarious and she was an absolute scene-stealer. I am ecstatic that these three actors are gaining higher profiles in Hollywood, because Dope proves that if Moore, Revolori and Clemons are embraced by mainstream cinema, we will gain three bona fide talented stars, and I wish them the very best (both Revolori and Clemons have been cast in major superhero projects currently in development – and we are eagerly awaiting for Moore’s involvement in a high profile project). Keep an eye on everyone involved in this film – I guarantee that if this film is anything to go by, they will all be incredible in the future.
The social message behind Dope is one that should not be ignored. There is class conflict present throughout the world, and it is doing far more harm than many other forms of social problems. The part of Dope that I thought was the most interesting was how this film shows that class conflict (and everything that comes with it, particularly race issues) is present, right from the outset. However, this film shows it in a more humorous light, and doesn’t make it appear to be anything more than a persistent framing device for the plot. However, this film does progressively get darker and darker, and the final fifteen minutes of this film is independent cinema at its very finest – the social message becomes too loud to ignore, and without being preachy or overly heavy, it becomes very powerful and hits you like a ton of bricks. Some ignorant or misinformed people would say that issues such as the ones Dope portray do not have a place in cinema – and I vehemently disagree – Dope shows a side of the world that we all know is present, and through its sheer brilliance, Dope has taken this message a step further. The biggest and most bold messages always come in the smallest and most humble packages.
Dope is a tremendous film. It is beautifully made in all regards – the cinematography is some of the best in modern independent cinema, and the original songs (written by musical genius and executive producer Pharrell Williams) are catchy and memorable. Dope is such a wonderful little film, and it packs a powerful punch. I thought it was extraordinary, and I was totally captivated by it throughout. I think it is one of the most subtly beautiful commentaries on the current state of the world today, and it is an important film. But most of all, Dope is a fun and joyful little film, and there has never been a film that lives up to its title quite as much as Dope does.