For a long time now, it’s been difficult to be a teenager. As they arrive at high school experience, they discover is all about getting the first true ideas of who they are, and who they might turn out to be. It’s the first time they are building their own identity, and for a while now, those identities have looked to the past. Sometimes this comes from a want to stand out, sometimes a want to be part of something they perceive as a “better time”. JUst as often, these attitudes and styles are fronts – a smokescreen to distract as a teenager works out for themselves what it is that defines them…if they even know yet.
DOPE is the story of three teenage friends in Inglewood named Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib (Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, and Tony Revolori respectively). In a community dotted by gangbangers and drug dealers, the three kids stand out; the get good grades, they keep out of trouble, and most of all – they act like it’s 1991. They’re not interested in the least in modern rap or modern style, eschewing it all for style and taste that is most certainly described as “old school”. Their time at school is almost up, and Malcolm has his eyes on Harvard…if he can only put together the right application.
One afternoon, when trying to get away from some school bullies, the threesome cut through a part of their neighbourhood controlled by drug dealers. It’s here that Malcolm is summoned by one named Dom (A$AP Rocky) in the hopes that his off-kilter style will appeal to a girl Dom likes. This impromptu inner-city Cyrano scheme works, and even gets Malcolm and his friends invited to a club night Dom is hosting for his birthday.
During the party, a drug deal Dom has arranged gets violently broken-up by a competitor. The ensuing fracas sends all the guests running, but in the melee Dom manages to drop his weapon, mobile phone, and drugs into Malcolm’s backpack (a fact unbeknownst to Dom until a few days later back at school). When Malcolm is first contacted about the drugs, he’s told to make a drop at a specific place and time – however at the last moment, the meet is called as a bluff by Dom during a phone call to Malcolm from prison.
Dom tells Malcolm to being everything to a contact of his…a contact that also turns out to be the Harvard alum interviewing Malcolm about his application. It’s there that the alum has Malcolm double-down. He could put the bag of contraband down and back away, proving that he’s every bit the upright weakling everyone perceives him to be…or he could step in, “man up”, and make the best of a bad situation.
What will Malcolm and his friends do? Is it possible to stay true to their ideals and rise to the occasion? Or will they be swallowed into the very world order their community lives by, but one they are trying to stay above?
Front and centre in DOPE is the theme of identity. In the world that Malcolm and his friends inhabit, it doesn’t take much to tell the sheep from the wolves. Thing is, even sheep find themselves wanting a taste of blood sometimes…and even wolves have wooly underbellies. So where it might be easy for an upright parent to tell their children to steer clear of drug culture, a teenager can find themselves drifting into a drug dealer’s orbit through no fault of their own. What then? Duck and cover? Can one still be “a good person” – an upright person – if they interact with drug dealers?
DOPE wants us to think long and hard about that question before we answer it. It wants us to think about the way modern teenagers can look to the past to express themselves, and use that equation to understand how they could do something elicit to further themselves down a righteous path.
The secret weapon is Shameik Moore and what he brings to the role of Malcolm. He challenges perceptions about what a teenager like him is all about and what a teenager like him can do. Sure they can be horny, nerdy, twerps…most interested in watching movies and playing music. However he is likewise a perceptive friend, son, and student. He doesn’t want to be defined by his circumstances or his station. Moore is believable as the desperate horndog – the sort who can get fleeced for a precious possession by a glimpse of skin. However, he is also believable when he has to find an edgier side later – a more calculating side. The duality is key because it challenges our perceptions: making us think long and hard about who we know in the world, and what we think they will do in any given situation.
There’s a flaw to DOPE that cannot be denied, and it’s a bit of a sad flaw since it really holds the film back from becoming something truly special. The flaw is that the story presents itself as one of these three friends…and at the pinnacle of their friendship before they go their separate ways come September. In doing so, the film seems to have its eves on a prize: it seems to have a desire to join those stories of epic nights and endless summer that define our youth and dot film history. To be specific, it seems poised to join films like AMERICAN GRAFITTI and DAZED AND CONFUSED. However, around halfway home it becomes abundantly clear that what we’re watching isn’t the story of Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib; it’s Malcolm’s story and only Malcolm’s story.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. One just cant help but wonder what might have been if we’d spent a bit more time learning about Diggy and what her plans were…or likewise Jib and what challenges he faced. They compliment Malcolm wonderfully, but all the same one can’t help but believe they both provided more story to be told than DOPE chooses to tell.
Let’s be clear though, the flaw I’m describing is what prevented a film that was really good from becoming truly great. At the end of the day, a film that is “really good” about characters like these is still worth making an effort to see. They embody something that is unique to their generation and geography, and yet something that so many teenagers before them and after them will need to sort through.