Did you bring my lunch?

Dope (has nobody really used this title since the Twenties?) is a far-fetched but hip update on the high school comedy depicting a youthful entrepreneur malgré lui, sort of like Tom Cruise in Risky Business but no longer middle class and white — by a mile. For square-top coiffed African-American high school senior Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his sidekicks Latino Jib (Tony Revolori, the bellboy from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and tough light-skinned lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), it’s an achievement just traveling to school in their dangerous Inglewood, Los Angeles neighborhood without getting shot by drug dealers or warring gangs. “Malcolm lives in Inglewood, California, in the Darby-Dixon neighborhood referred to as the Bottoms,” introduces producer-narrator Forest Whitaker.

The filmmakers are not as good at plotting and at editing as they are at spinning funny situations and dialogue. Dope has some ratty, start-and-stop writing. Despite being hyper kinetic, it threatens to stall every so often (an effect not helped by some of Shameik Moore’s line readings) and its 115 minutes seemed to me a little long. But there are compensations. This movie is up-to-date, witty, and peppered with quotable dialogue whose pauses to comment and editorialize are some of the best parts; its desire to be a YA Tarantino pic is not wholly unfulfilled. I loved the scene where the drug boss Dom (Rakim Mayers aka A$ap Rocky) schools his minions on the meaning of “slippery slope,” and the one in which a tough young garment district bitcoin trader explains the difference between a genuine and a fake leather handbag: there ain’t none. If you’re posh, people will think it real, and if you’re ghetto, even a real one will seem fake when you carry it.

Malcolm and his two DMC-bike-riding, skateboard-carrying pals style themselves as geeks and are not only into retro Nineties hip hop clothes and music (augmented with original songs by style king Pharrell Williams), but such white shit as Danny Glover, good grades, SAT scores, and college. That they somehow combine this with having their own retro band is just one example of the way this movie tries to pack in too many riffs, ideas, and possibilities, anything that will make for a good scene; but there are those. Malcolm shoots high, Harvard his one and only goal and application at a time when the ambitious often apply to ten colleges. Nonetheless, Malcolm, Jib and Diggy talk ghetto, their chatter is layered with N- and F-words. The garment district bag tale applies to them, too. Condescension and nonbelief will be built into the way the white world sees them, no matter their talent. The movie doesn’t entirely prove this talent, or the geekiness. But it might just be boring and literal to do so.

This is a hip ghetto update of Risky Business with a touch of Ferris Bueller. Malcolm is a retro freak, but new wave viral-meme-savvy entrepreneur. He turns selling the cache of superdrugs he’s fallen heir to into a high school science project (with Diggy and Jip as his team) using concealed-identity Internet trading techniques with bitcoin payments. This may not be as fantastic as how successfully they dodge rival drug lords who want their product back, though the plot is laced with some far-fetched coincidences.

The comedy helps leaven the frequent moments of violence, but the college-bound geek concept only carries so far. Malcolm and his pals are rarely seen studying. Instead hey crash drug dealer Dom’s hot birthday party when Malcolm has his Harvard alumni interview the next day. The party turns violent and the trio escapes, only to find Malcolm’s daypack now packed with drugs (apparently MDMA, the pure raw material of Ecstasy known as “Molly”) and containing a revolver. He is supposed to return this “lunch” but doubt arises as to who the rightful owner is and somehow this is resolved by the trio selling it off. That decision precipitates most of the rest of the action, but there is plenty of time for digressions. Malcolm wins the affection of Dom’s sometime girlfriend (Zoë Kravitz) and gets his intro to sex from a crazy lady called Lily (Chanel Iman) who drives on Molly and whose public urination gets her on the nightly news.

Writer-director Rick Famuyiwa’s previous outings have been more for the adult African American audience. This movie not only is attuned to youth but might appeal well out of the African-American demographic and to the open-minded of all ages..

Dope debuted at Sundance, where Boyd van Hoeij’s Hollywood Reporter review says it spurred a virtual bidding war. Other festival showings, including Cannes Directors Fortnight, with a standing ovation there (and Edinburgh late June). Enthusiasm perhaps a bit exaggerated, but the 72% Metacritic rating shows solid critical approval. It’s released in UK cinemas 4th September.


Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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