Malcolm Adekanbi (Moore) is an African-American high school kid with straight As and even straighter hair who defies gravity to create a flattop to rival even Kid of Kid N’ Play. The reference is justified as Malcom and his two friends are hip-hop geeks who, contrary to the down-and-out neighbourhood from which they hail (the aptly-named The Bottoms in Inglewood, California), shun the gangsta drug culture all around them.
Preferring punk to poppin’
Instead they keep it all at bay with a wall of 1990s nostalgia, busying themselves with ‘white kid shit’ – such as playing in a punk band and reading comic books. But all changes when Malcolm’s determination to lose his virginity lands himself and his friends, Jib (Revolori) and Diggy (Clemons), in a world of pain.
An underground party for a local dealer is raided by the federal police and despite having the smarts to get himself and his friends out, avoiding bullets and/or arrest, Malcolm later discovers his satchel is full of MDMA. After first trying to return the stash, he finds that this is not a straightforward proposition and that his entire future, specifically his dreams of attending Harvard University, are now hanging in the balance.
More Shameik soon
The first thing to say about DOPE is that Shameik Moore emerges from this as a talent to watch. He delivers a soulful, comedic performance that is both intelligent and intuitive. He’s a great screen presence and renders his character – and the film – immediately like-able.
Once this is established, the film struggles to seal in its freshness, revealing early on that the contents are well past their sell-by-date. Even Moore’s buoyant energies cannot distract from the distinctly recycled nature of the narrative. Falling somewhere between a Kevin Smith film, the House Party franchise and the more recent Project X, DOPE offers nothing new, but is not without its moments.
Humour bottoms out
There’s an amusing debate between Malcolm, a Latino friend, an African-Asian American lesbian and a drug-dealing white college kid about the parameters of using the ’N’ word (specifically for whites) and analysis of Obama’s gangsta credentials with regards to his apparent preference for drone strikes.
On the other hand, some of the gross-out humour jars – too overtly American Pie to sit comfortably alongside DOPE’s obviously more lofty ambitions. Comedy aside, there’s a none-too-subtle message about coming of age within a system that is stacked against those less fortunate – namely that you can’t make it in a corrupt world without walking the line. The Bottoms are a long way from the top and even those who play by the rules won’t win – without cheating.
Vanilla Ice might like it
Like its sunshine protagonist, DOPE is smart enough, charmingly sweet-natured, well intentioned and frequently funny.
However, its anti-cliché, dot-com, bitcoin-driven narrative struggles to shake an archetypal familiarity, punctuated by too many lazy plot points – all of which are delivered with a soft benevolence that leaves you wholly indifferent.
While it’s no Vanilla Ice, it’s less NWA than it is Fresh Prince – which is a failure on its own terms.