The main problem with a film like Dope is that it sets you up to experience something original. Watching its trailer you see some unusual sights, chief among them a black protagonist. It gets you expecting something other than the standard dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks indie teen films that have been ceaselessly flitting across your local cinema screen since the demise of John Hughes. Dope could have been a fun and intelligent film, instead it embraced the gun, drugs and sexism culture of so many Harold and Kumar films, and ends up a generic bore.
Could it be that some cultural critique exists within the fabric of this film? You’d have to look pretty damn hard to find it, through the sheen of superficial timeliness such at the references to Bitcoin and the ’90s hip-hop throwback that defines the main characters. But the facts are blinding, and the way this film treats its female characters really exposes just how one-dimensional the writing is here. Main character Malcolm’s sidekick Diggy exists seemingly so people can make the joke that she looks like a boy (she’s a lesbian of course). Besides that we learn very little about her, or Jib, the other friend. Or Malcolm for that matter.
Malcolm at least comes across as having the semblance of a personality thanks to Shameik Moore who fills the role. But his regressions into pure dumbness – like when he transforms into a goggle-eyed fool whenever a (characteristically scantily-clad) woman starts inexplicably flirting with him – mixed with the film’s ridiculous plot holes – every time Malcolm brings drugs and guns into the school and the metal detector goes off the security guard says the machine must be broken – it’s hard to care about him at all.
Of course the object of his affection Zoe Kravitz has no discernible character traits, and their scenes together are cringe-worthy in the extreme. The forced coyness of the dialogue and the corny smiles and arguments that make up their relationship kill whatever chemistry Moore and Kravitz may have shared. There’s so few original ideas or actual characters on show here that there is simply nothing to grab on to and keep you interested.
It’s a pity that Dope ended up being a prime example of lowest common denominator cinema. There was an opportunity here to make a film from the perspective of a real intelligent black kid growing up in LA. Instead the film embraces its mainstream ethos to the full, and tacks on the most blunt piece of black righteousness you could imagine, communicated in a Breakfast Club style essay delivered to camera. In total, Dope is a wasted opportunity, a film that doesn’t say “this is what it’s like growing up black in America” instead saying “we are all the same”; pop culture’s mantra, and a false statement if ever there was one.