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Sundance 2015: ‘Dope’ is actually pretty dope

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Dope
Written and Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
USA, 2015

The first image in the film is a breakdown of the various meanings and uses of the word “dope” – drugs, stupid person, and slang for something being very cool. This is a pre-cursor to the overall theme of the film, that any one label is never representative of just one thing. Each of the central characters are dealing with labels being thrown at them, and through them a running dialogue throughout the film unearths what it means to be true to yourself. Director Rich Famuyiwa’s film follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school geek in Inglewood, CA, who with his friends Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) and Jib (Tony Revolori) – who are all obsessed with 90s hip hop culture – end up with a bag of dope from a local drug dealer, and must figure out how to unload it all before things go from bad to worse.

Famuyiwa’s direction puts character first, which he follows much enthusiasm and affection. The comedic timing in the film is precise, even at it’s most outlandish it never gets out of hand due to Famuyiwa’s emphasis on experiencing the comedy through Malcolm. Pop culture references work for the most part in this film thankfully, which is refreshing since most comedy’s just throw them at the wall hoping one will stick. There’s an infectious energy to the pacing of the film, thanks to kinetic camera work from DoP Rachel Morrison and the complimentary editing from Lee Haugen.

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The cast is very exceptional. Even at the film’s most ridiculous and heightened moments, it still retains an authenticity due to the characters and how honest the cast keeps them. Shameik Moore is a star in the making. He has a winning smile, that “wait, you mean me?” look on his face throughout most of the film that results in some great comedic moments. Malcolm is the heart and soul of the film, and Moore plays him with honesty and affection. Tony Revolori had a marvelous breakout last year in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and continues to establish himself as a legitimate performer as Jib. He gets plenty of comedic moments to himself and has great chemistry with Moore and Kiersey Clemons, who keeps the other two in the trio on their toes with her sharp delivery. I’ve never liked A$AP Rocky as a musical artist, but he’s not half bad in the role of drug dealer Dom. Keith Stanfield is convincing in the role of the school bully, Bug, bringing some much needed honesty to the role. Zoe Kravitz manages to inject some soul into a largely thankless role as Nakia, who is largely there to just serve as a romantic interest to Malcolm.

The film dabbles in clichés and forced drama, but the overall effort is well-meaning enough to look past the pitfalls. There was one moment near the end where Famuyiwa practically dropped the mic and forced the audience to stare back at themselves, and it’s the greatest moment in the film. The entire audience exploded into applause immediately. This film has a chance to be something special and exciting, and Famuyiwa knows it. Both him and Moore received standing ovations after the film, and it was earned. Famuyiwa has just become a vital independent voice thanks to Dope, and one hopes he can continue to deliver the warmth, honesty and creativity that he put forth in this film.


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