Warning: There are some mild spoilers ahead.
In Dope, the new coming-of-age tale from Rick Famuyiwa (The Wood, Brown Sugar), A$AP Rocky and Tyga make their feature film debuts. (Yes, Tyga appeared in Snoop and Wiz’s fake Cheech and Chong movie, Mac & Devin Go to High School, but I’m not counting it—that went straight to DVD.) What sorts of characters do Rocky and Tyga play? If you guessed “drug dealers,” you might be a) cynical b) racist c) lacking in imagination or d) just a good guesser. If you guessed “charismatic high school teachers just trying to get by,” salute! You’re a real dreamer.
Dope premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it was scooped for $7 million. Dom, Rocky’s character, makes an appearance roughly 10 minutes into the movie. In a black snapback and with a white bandana tied in a neat rectangle around his throat, he reclines against the trunk of that Los Angeles icon: a lowrider with the top off. He’s a successful drug dealer in Inglewood, Calif., and he playfully harasses our protagonist, Malcolm (played by Shameik Moore), a high-school senior and outcast who dreams of attending Harvard. Of course, this gets complicated when Malcolm gets caught up in in scheme that involves having to sell molly via the deep web in order to get his Harvard application pushed through. (There's an explanation, but it would require graph paper and a family tree.) Rocky's character sets the drug stuff into motion. He does other things, too.
Other Things Rocky Does:
Clown his partners about not understanding the concept of a “slippery slope.”
Punch a bouncer in the face.
Wear Black Scale clothing.
Dance with Zoe Kravitz.
Participate in an illicit business transaction involving bricks of MDMA.
Make a call from jail.
Smile his pretty smile.
Debate the American government’s use of drones overseas with Tyga.
Which brings us to The Things Tyga Does:
Wear a shiny blue blazer with the sleeves pushed up, like he’s time-traveled from the ‘80s.
Argue on behalf of drones (until he’s convinced by Rocky’s character that the use of drones constitutes a slippery slope, and that they could be used against black men in America, should the government decide they’re enough of a threat.)
Get shot with a shotgun. (Sorry, but it's in the trailer.)
Crazy, right? In fact, there’s so much going on in Dope, you’ll likely find it in your heart to forgive the movie for its bitcoins. Yes, massive threads of the movie’s plot depend on bitcoins, the crypto-currency that was all the rage among media and tech reporters in 2013. Characters talk about bitcoins among knowledgeable parties. They explain bitcoins to the unaware. The camera shows bitcoins accumulating on a computer screen. There’s a tense, third-act deal that goes down involving expensive bags and a thumb-drive heavy with bitcoins.
The bitcoins are a good stand-in for the biggest problems with Dope: it’s trying very hard to be contemporary. In addition to bitcoins, there’s awkwardly inserted YouTube clips and lots of jokes about molly (in addition to actual molly memes that appear on screen).
When the movie works, it does so in ways that aren’t dependent on technology to fit in with our contemporary moment. Dope is interested in the post-rap world, and how that affects young people of all races, sexual orientation, etc. This means there are conversations about who can use of the n-word, about homosexuality, about how institutions of power, like colleges and corporations, are corrupt frauds that create disharmony across communities. All of these moments (even the less successful ones)—which require just characters in rooms, bullshitting—feel more alive and of-the-moment than any shoehorned YouTube segment.
Just speculating here, but Famuyiwa is in his 40s—maybe he felt pressure to be hip and wound up overcompensating. A$AP Rocky and Tyga actually work—they have small-enough parts and the necessary charm that they never become distractions. If only Famuyiwa had trusted the rest of his capable performers, and his own writing.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He tweets here.