There’s a lot to be said for being passionate about one’s work. Particularly in artistic ventures, passion beyond simple commercial gain can go a long way in making a product enjoyable, even if that product is not exactly perfect. That’s the sort of headspace that Dope seems to occupy: writer/director Rick Famuyiwa really cares about what he has put on the screen, and though it isn’t a perfect representation of what he was trying to achieve, the general feeling and overall effort are readily apparent.
Dope is the story of Malcolm and his two friends Jib and Diggy. They are outcasts in their underprivileged public school, as they are 90s hip-hop geeks who care about “white people things” like getting good grades and going to college. Through a series of adolescent accidents and general inexperience with the world of gangstas, Malcolm finds himself strapped with a backpack full of MDMA. Since turning in the dope is not an option for a black kid from the ghetto, he must find a way to get rid of the product with the help of his equally street-inept friends.
If there is one thing the film does really well, it is in treating Malcolm as a complex character, a teenager who doesn’t know who exactly he is except for defining himself as who he is not. He is not a drug peddler and his identity is couched in getting to Harvard so that he can pull his mother out of their poor neighborhood. But who he is as a person is confused and muddled, somewhere between a product of his environment and a rejection of it, and that ends up being the focus of his character arc. This culminates in a wonderful scene that involves Malcolm speaking directly into the camera, equal parts blunt and provocative, but still necessary in ensuring the film’s main point isn’t lost on its (presumably predominantly white) audience.
But as great as that culminating moment is, the rest of the film isn’t nearly as consistent. It’s an issue of tone that emanates from an excited director wanting his film to be all things at once. Scenes can transition between lighthearted and goofy to deadly serious at the drop of a hat, and while some of that feels intentional, other times it is jarring and seemingly out of place. There also seem to be missed opportunities to flesh out the supporting characters of Jib and Diggy, who mainly exist as a sounding board for Malcolm’s musings rather than as fully fleshed out characters.
That said, Dope is still a pretty good movie, a project saved almost exclusively by the extreme passion for its existence. At times hilarious and at times deeply contemplative, this film is a strong early entry for Rick Famuyiwa, and I hope he can harness that enthusiasm for a more balanced product in the future. But in the meantime, give Dope a chance to win you over.