“If that movie had been in French, you would have loved it,” a friend recently said to me about Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, an LA-set teen picture currently playing at multiplexes around town. He explained that the film reminded him of much French art cinema in how it frequently and surprisingly changes tone, something I only hinted at when I reviewed Dope last month. I described it as simply a “lively comedy,” giving short shrift to its passages of serious drama, social commentary, and shocking violence. Yet these forays into other genres speak to the film’s energy and ambition—qualities to which I was more receptive when I saw the movie a second time. Like the early French New Wave films, Dope aspires to a mode of filmmaking that regards all genres as equally fertile grounds for creative expression. I must have blinded myself to what makes the film special in expecting it to conform to teen comedy conventions.
In its nonconformist nature, Dope resembles its hero, a black teenager in Inglewood, California, who identifies with white geek culture. Malcolm (Shameik Moore), who plays guitar in a punk band and aspires to go to Harvard, maintains a positive outlook despite living amid gang violence. The movie too strikes a sunny tone in its approach to inner-city life—the early scenes introducing the characters and their surroundings have a bright, storybook quality to them, thanks to Lee Haugen’s bouncy editing and Forest Whitaker’s genial narration. When we learn that one of Malcolm’s friends was recently killed in a drive-by shooting, the effect is jarring, but not enough to spoil the mood. The film rebounds from the tragic news as quickly as the characters—the next thing we learn is that another friend of Malcolm’s has been bugging the dead kid’s mother to let him have the departed’s comic book collection. These scenes situate the film at the intersection of comedy and terror, hinting that the film could go either way at any time.
Dope goes pretty far in both directions, and it also makes a couple detours into the terrain of movie musicals. The central conflict, though, is ironic and frightening at once. A series of circumstances results in Malcolm and his two best friends coming into the possession of $100,000 worth of narcotics. The rightful owner of the stash—a corrupt businessman who uses a payday loan operation as a front for gang activity—turns out to be the same person who’s supposed to conduct Malcolm’s entrance interview for Harvard. He demands that Malcolm sell the supply, promising a strong recommendation letter if he complies. And so Malcolm must turn criminal if he wants a chance of breaking out of crime-ridden Inglewood.
At its most unpredictable, Dope seems to stop being a fiction film altogether, with the dialogue breaking out into rap sessions on current events. (As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, the movie sometimes suggests a living newspaper.) One such conversation occurs shortly before Malcolm comes into possession of all those narcotics. We’re at the birthday party for a drug dealer who’s taken a liking to the young hero. The dealer, Dom, and one of his friends are shooting the breeze, and the subject of Obama’s drone strikes comes up. The friend praises the drone strikes as “gangsta shit,” but Dom isn’t so sure. What if American law enforcement agencies start using drones to police the inner cities? he wonders. It’s a provocative question, suggesting that American inner-city areas aren’t much better off than war-torn regions abroad—and it’s all the more provocative for arising shortly after a broadly comic scene. By maintaining a slippery tone, Famuyiwa allows for doses of hard reality to slip into the film.