It says something that throughout this movie I tried to figure out where I’d seen the actor playing Jib before, but I had to look it up on IMDb later. It was Zero from The Grand Budapest Hotel! Duh! I mean, sure, it’s a very different character, but is that enough to explain why I didn’t recognize him? Oh, wait, you say Zoë Kravitz was one of the Wives in Mad Max: Fury Road, and I didn’t even realize that I’d seen her before? Maybe we’ve got a problem here.
Let’s call the problem old age and failing memory. Dope seems very much a young person’s movie, although writer-director Rick Famuyiwa is in his 40s. It’s about three misfit high school friends in the troubled Los Angeles County neighborhood of Inglewood. They’re nerds in a school dominated by jocks and gang members. Malcolm dreams of getting into Harvard, but life gets complicated when a local drug dealer named Dom picks him out to deliver messages to Dom’s beautiful girlfriend, Nakia (which would be Kravitz). Malcolm and Jib and their lesbian pal, Diggy, are soon in over their heads in the underworld drug trade. As a title card tells us early on, dope is a word that means drugs, a dumb person, and the condition of being excellent. All apply here.
This is like those tragic LA ghetto crime movies of the ’90s (a decade worshiped by the young protagonists of Dope), except played as a comedy. The comedy is very funny, too, and it embodies the film’s theme in also being smart and nerdy. The kids’ approach to their dilemma is also appropriately nerdy, as they use anonymous websites and Bitcoin to market the drugs. Dope is about the difficult choices the American socioeconomic and racial realities force upon these characters, but it’s also an attempt to subvert the usual message of these kinds of stories. It wants to have its pound cake and eat it too.
It’s funny, it’s stylish and energetic, it creates sympathetic characters, and it has something to say, with what appears to be an iconic evocation of Trayvon Martin in the end. My one complaint would be that for all that it treats Diggy and Nakia with respect, Lily and some of the women in bit roles are given too much of the T&A treatment. There were times when I wondered what the film would look like if the lesbian pal Diggy were the protagonist rather than Malcolm. But in the end I liked this one for what it is, which is a funny-earnest story about making lemonade out of life’s lemons.
So how do you make lemonade out of failing memory?