DOPE is a provocative blend of gritty realism, gentle compassion, and piercing social satire that is so unlike anything that has come before that its maker, Rick Famuyima, may have just invented a new cinematic sub-genre in the spirit, and brilliance, of the Coen Brothers’ FARGO. Boldly venturing into issues of identity, class, gender, sexuality, and race, it impishly refuses to purvey the expected, much less the cliché, as it celebrates intelligence in its many expressions, and the nimble thinking of geekiness as beyond the confines of merely being cool.
Our hero is Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a high school senior in The Bottoms, a dangerous Los Angeles neighborhood where having your sneakers stolen is as much a possibility for a geek as being killed by a stray bullet, and the putatively smart options are confined to having a gang affiliation or to selling drugs. Malcolm has few advantages beyond a loving single mother (Kimberly Elise), and two friends, Jib (Tony Revolori), an ethnically ambivalent kid with an attitude out of all proportion to his slight build, and Diggy (Kiersy Clemmons), an androgynous kid with even more attitude who delights in flashing her secondary sexual characteristics at bemused onlooker. They will, as the film reveals, stand by him through thick and thin creating a relentless force that is more than the sum of its parts. Unlike their peers, these three are college bound, and into such “white things” as manga, 90s hip hop, and getting good grades. Malcolm aims high, whether it’s applying to Harvard despite his guidance counselor’s reservations, or Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), the lissome neighborhood girl with the complicated relationship with the neighborhood drug lord, Dom (Rakim Mayers).
In a clever series of plot twists that we should be accepted with unreserved delight as they are taken with the intended grain of salt, all those elements will come together in a stunning series of coincidences that are less about convenience and more about creating a perfect microcosm in which Famuyima’s idea can play, sometimes with extreme prejudice. Famuyima is fearlessly ambitious in what he wants to say about the ingrained expectations society has inflicted upon us all, and he succeeds with sober intelligence, puckish wit, and a take on society’s shortcomings that are angry, but never quite cynical. That last is where the true genius resides. This is a problem to be solved, he posits, by using the enemy’s own resources against him or her, manipulated by the outcasts whose very isolation allows them to see the big picture, rather than just one set of possibilities. Moore, on whose performance the film relies, is the embodiment of all those things. Malcolm’s charm is his utter lack of naiveté balanced with the buoyant optimism that he can endure, escape, and ultimately triumph. It’s neither foolishness nor arrogance, though those assumptions by others will crop up, and Malcolm will be joyously cutthroat in taking advantage of that as we cheer him on, even while we are being asked at every turn to re-evaluate our own preconceived notions of those ci-mentioned issues. A conversation about who and who can’t say the “N” word is both visceral and philosophical. The wisdom of trust is put through a proverbial wringer. And we are left with a world that is more complex, and more interesting, than mere duality.
The camerawork is flawless, conveying absurdity, suspense, and the growing sense of a very specific, worldly wise innocence being lost as the minutes tick by. Facades crack, worlds collide, bullets fly, and time becomes a fluid medium for the story to find its own best path to denouement. There has not been a more assured piece of filmmaking this year, and perhaps not in this decade.
DOPE is more than just a time capsule of a particular time and place. Famuyima’s microcosm is a study of humanity in all its seemingly disparate manifestations. To see it is to be engaged in a very personal way in its questioning and its conclusions.