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Film Review: "Dope"

Slippery slopes


It's said that there are only about seven different plots in storytelling, yet our unique perspectives have enabled scribes to recycle those same scenarios for thousands of years. So on the surface, there's nothing particularly new or groundbreaking about writer-director Rick Famuyiwa's "Dope," in which naïve young people come into possession of a pile of drugs and try to stay ahead of the bad guys as they figure out how to offload it; we've seen that go down in movies like 1993's "True Romance" and 1999's "Go." But Famuyiwa's approach makes "Dope" seem fun, fresh, and vibrant; by no means is it a flawless film, but it is well-crafted and perfectly cast, with more than its share of star-making performances.

Comprehensive narration by Forest Whitaker introduces us to Malcolm (the ultra-charming Shameik Moore), a high school senior who lives in The Bottoms section of Inglewood, California. A self-described geek with a mile-high fade, Malcolm is obsessed with 1990's hip-hop, and both the music and the aesthetic inform the lives of him and his best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, a long way from "The Grand Budapest Hotel") and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). A lesser-evil situation finds Malcolm crossing paths with friendly drug dealer Dom (rapper A$AP Rocky, pure charisma), but it's Malcolm's crush on Dom's alluring girl Nakia (Zoe Kravitz, gorgeously confident) that leads to a chain of events resulting in several bundles of MDMA nestled in Malcolm's backpack.

The balance of "Dope" unfolds as Malcolm, Jib, and Diggy take steps to move the molly while avoiding the all-too-real pitfalls of their tough neighborhood as well as the myriad hazards in the outwardly nicer parts of town. That overstuffed-ness is the only major problem with the otherwise appealing "Dope," which has so much to say on so many subjects that some points fail to resonate in the din. (And several scenes drag; "Dope" would benefit from some tightening.) But the film's frenetic energy is reflected in Famuyiwa's eye-candy shooting style, which includes split-screen, flashback, slow-motion, freeze-frame, montage, and changing film speeds. And the soundtrack, curated by executive producer Pharrell Williams, is on point with tracks ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Gil Scott-Heron. Williams even wrote the original songs for Malcolm's punk band, Awreeoh, which you should say out loud.