Sundance Review: 'Dope' starring Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, and Zoe Kravitz

Having grown up in the '90s and been deep into the hip-hop culture, I have a pretty good sense for those who have a genuine feel for the era. It was a time when hip-hop was at its creative peak from a musical and fashion sense, but also in the way rappers expressed themselves as individuals. Being "real" is at the core of Rick Famuyiwa's kinetic comedy Dope, a fast-paced throwback that is a little like a mix of House Party and Boyz n the Hood. At the time of this review Dope is the big winner of the Sundance Film Festival, sparking a bidding war that ultimately scored a whopping $7M. Normally the financials are the last thing one should be concerned with, but in the case of Dope it's an indication of the film's wide crossover appeal that may surpass last year's breakout comedy, Dear White People.

But is Dope worth all of the attention it's getting? Absolutely, but to say it isn't a little overhyped would be lying. The film's greatest hook is in the opening 30 minutes as we're introduced to geeky best friends Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (The Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori), and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). Although the film is set in contemporary Inglewood, CA in the tough part of town known as "The Bottoms", Malcolm and his crew are old school. He rocks a high-top fade, wears Cross Colours, and indulges in other "white things" like Donald Glover and manga comics. They even speak in the slang of the time which everybody thinks is pretty wack.  Growing up in the 'hood is tough enough with the ever-present threat of street violence, but Malcolm and his crew are obvious targets for bullies.

The charm comes in the nostalgic hip-hop packaging with beats by Naughty by Nature, Nas, along with original tracks by Pharrell. And at least through the opening minutes as Malcolm and his crew establish themselves as 'hood outsiders, the film is incredibly entertaining and hilarious. Malcolm is a smart kid with dreams of graduating high school and going to Harvard, but kids from "The Bottoms" rarely get that far. Famuyiwa has plenty to say about the tough circumstances for those growing up in a neighborhood where there is little hope for success, and those who strive to better themselves are looked at as weak. If Malcolm is going to go to Harvard, it's going to take a move of legendary proportions to do it. Fortunately that opportunity arrives after a chance encounter with Dom (A$AP Rocky), a local hood who needs Malcolm's help hooking up with Nakia (Zoe Kravitz), who is hoping to earn her GED and escape to a better life.

Things start to get serious when Malcolm gets involved in a drug deal involving Dom and some rival gangsters who bust up in a nightclub ready to kill. For a good stretch of the film it becomes, essentially, a crime movie as Malcolm is stuck with a huge stash of drugs and no good options for getting rid of them.  The film is all about making the best of a bad situation, and Famuyiwa cleverly weaves in all of Malcolm's various subplots into one. Showing that he's got a handle on modern technology, Famuyiwa's screenplay includes references to the underground currency Bitcoin, Snapchat, and more. One of the funniest sequences involves a viral campaign, a drug nicknamed #Lily for a slutty chick Malcolm encounters, and a hilarious use of the word "poundcake".  The film remains entertaining throughout but the lengthy drug selling plot takes away from what worked best which is Malcolm and his friends just hanging out. That they never really try to conform is also one of the story's finest qualities, and the film works best when it doesn't try to fit into any specific genre, either. That makes a closing speech by Malcolm, done in the badly-overused "college application" trope, all the less effective. While what he says about race factoring into his future prospects is powerful, it's a little too serious and on-the-nose to fit with the tone of the rest of the film. That he then immediately takes a symbolic action that contradicts his non-conformist personality also doesn't make sense given the message Famuyiwa had spent the entire film sending.

When Dope refuses to fall into any direct labels it's one of the smartest and funniest urban comedies we've seen in a long time. Even when it's less than perfect, Dope is pretty fresh.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5