Although the recent coming-of-age teen comedy Dope felt like the emphatic debut of a just-out-of-film school youngster (in terms of energy, not competence) it was actually the work of a director who’s been lurking in Hollywood for more than 15 years. In that time, Rick Famuyiwa has only been able to get four feature films off the ground, which, judging by the two I’ve seen, is a total shame. Famuyima has a smart, authentic, straightforward lens through which he examines youth & nostalgia, both in his most recent effort Dope & in his actual debut, a small-scale charmer made for MTV Films 15 years ago called The Wood.
The Wood & Dope have a lot in common besides the name in the director’s credit. While Dope is set in the present it looks back to 90s music & fashion for inspiration. The Wood splits its time between (the then present) 1999 & flashbacks to the 1980s, equally conscious of reconstructing the styles & sounds of a bygone era as Dope. The flashback chapters of The Wood are introduced through spinning vinyl records, Jheri curls are hilariously abundant, and the high school age protagonists wear clothes so dated that they’ve already had their vintage cool heyday and have gone back to tacky again. Both Dope & The Wood feature protagonists speaking directly to the audience, follow young teens getting into heaps of trouble trying to shed their virginity, happen to include a disgusting puke gag, and discuss the small changes of course that can turn a young nerd into a perceived-violent criminal in the particularly hazardous social minefield of Inglewood, California, where both movies are set. As if that weren’t enough of a solid connection, both films also feature a character named Stacey played by actor De’aundre Bondsl, who are ostensibly the same person (although Dope doesn’t make that connection explicit).
Of course, Dope & The Wood aren’t exact copies of each other and if I had to choose a favorite of the two, I’m inclined to lean towards the more energetic cartoonishness of Dope. The Wood does stand up quite well on its own, though, and helps to reveal a director with a keen eye for nostalgia & growing pains instead of the out-of-nowhere youngin’ with something to prove that I assumed directed Dope when I first saw the trailers. With these two films Famuyiwa establishes a genuine, confident voice that allows him to both tackle the intricacies of gang violence & the inconvenience of public boners. If you enjoyed Dope, I highly recommend giving The Wood a look for context. If you’ve already seen & enjoyed both, maybe just keep an eye out for Famuyiwa’s other films, both past & future. That’s what I plan on doing, anyway.
If you’ve seen the ads for Dope, it’d be forgivable if you mistakenly assumed the film was set in the early 90s. Very much conscious of its use of that visual palette, Dope is smart to declare itself set in 2015 from the get go, opening the film with the protagonist Malcolm explaining to his mother how Bitcoins work. For every 90s-soaked skateboard, flat top hairdo, and A Tribe Called Quest music cue, Dope also features references to memes, smart phones, and online black markets, presumably so you don’t lose track of exactly when the film is set. The reason for all the 90s cultural markers is fairly straight-forward: it’s been long enough that the era has been deemed vintage cool, at least by the three high school geek main characters. Of course, since they were but young pups during the 90s, their understanding of the era is flimsy at best, as hilariously skewered by A$AP Rocky (making his acting debut here) within the film in his role as Dom, a drug dealer who sets the plot’s wheels in motion, in one of the movie’s more amusing & self-aware exchanges.
Dope is the coming-of-age story of three high school geeks who are used to pursuing good grades unexpectedly getting suckered into selling drugs. Set in a neighborhood called “The Bottoms”, a particularly rough area of Inglewood, CA, the protagonists are basically just trying to survive. Of course, because they are teenagers, they’re also trying to look cool & get laid, which complicates the task at hand at nearly every turn. Dope has a lot to say about racial identity, social inequality, and teen sexuality, but at its heart it’s really just a sweet story about three awkward high school students finding themselves having to grow up very quickly (due to a misplaced hand gun & an enormous bag of drugs). The movie doesn’t get everything right in the details (the trio’s “punk band” plays songs hilariously over-produced by Pharrell), but it’s mostly on point in capturing a very specific cultural subset that’s never received the big screen treatment before.
Watching Dope, I was reminded of my experience with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, except with the manga & video game references swapped out for 90s hip-hop. I enjoyed the film, but like with Scott Pilgrim. I’m certain that a very specific target audience of younger folks are going to latch onto it much, much more enthusiastically than I ever could. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is going to be someone out there’s favorite film, if nothing else because they’ve never seen themselves represented on the screen before. Where I see a fairly funny, vibrantly shot high school movie with wonderfully eccentric moments & a killer soundtrack (the Pharrell songs excluded), I expect someone else will see The Greatest Movie of All Times Forever. Even if that’s all the movie accomplishes, that’s still pretty dope.