Dope & Inside Out (2015) – A First Not So Daily Double

Opening this weekend, we had two films focused on growing up for two completely different audiences. It is not very often that two or more films opening the same weekend receive such warm press. In addition, I can’t help but agree. Such things are a cause for celebration, damn it.

First, we had writer/director Rick Famuyiwa’s recent effort Dope, a unanimous Sundance smash depicting three geeks in Inglewood who start selling the film’s titular drug on the sly. Secondly, we have the much-anticipated Inside Out, the latest tear-inducing Pixar offering from company-favorite Pete Doctor, responsible for four previous Pixar films. This time around, we follow the anthropomorphized emotions guiding 11-year-old Riley, who must deal with the struggles of a new environment.

Let’s introduce the first film from the evening, Dope. Our protagonist Malcolm, played by newcomer Shameik Moore, is an aspiring hipster youth who wants more than what is offered from his Inglewood neighborhood, the ‘Bottoms,’ specifically an acceptance to Harvard. In the meantime, he and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) are content being relative wallflowers at their local high school, geeking out about the 90’s rap scene, playing in a punk band, and doing other “shit white people like.”

By the way, this may not mean anything for most people, but as a hardcore punk listener, I really appreciated the Trash Talk name drop.

In spite of their nerdom, the plot is propelled forward when they discover planted drugs in Malcolm’s backpack after going to a gangbanger’s (A$AP Rocky) underground birthday bash. Such events lead to a most unconventional of coming-of-age processes, as Malcolm transitions from being a geek comfortable with passing by to his truer self.

In spite of this sort of phrase’s cliché nature, let it first be mentioned that Dope is quite aptly titled. First of all, while it is not uncommon for coming-of-age films to focus upon the outcasts of its milieu, such a focus would seem mostly unexpected of youthful protagonists living in the violent, gang-riddled neighborhoods of southern California. Additionally, there are relatively fewer coming-of-age films that feature African-American youth, in general, lending to refreshing and original qualities that make for an engaging experience.

The film features some spectacular writing from Famuyiwa, as well. With its premise, the features more than enough cleverness and intelligence with regards to its premise and setting. One aspect I particularly enjoyed was the film’s straight-faced honesty when it came to the realities of gang violence. Beginning with some delightfully unexpected dark humor towards the subject, the movie addresses such violence with astounding realism, emphasizing its commonplace nature for these characters – who, perhaps, have never experienced it firsthand, however – without belittling its impact.

Additionally, the film comes with its own cast of colorful characters accompanied with some solid performances from their respective players. Of course, Moore’s leading performance, as Malcolm is more than notable as he makes his feature debut. In spite of Malcolm’s particular living circumstances, he is a highly relatable character, and Moore navigates this dichotomy with grace. Additionally, for whatever little screen time he is given, rapper A$AP Rocky, who makes his debut, as well, is fairly amiable as Dom, the gang leader who thrusts Malcolm and his friends into their predicament. Zoë Kravitz, Revolori, Clemons, and Blake Anderson give solid supporting performances, as well.

Aside from a plot guilty of somewhat meandering, especially towards the midpoint, Dope is a bundle of fun that seems destined for cult status. If one thing can be said for certain about its weekend competitor, it will see much more than that.

I do not think I need to remind anyone of Pixar’s vastly impressive pedigree. Aside from one misstep, their record is nearly perfect, and while everyone is well aware of their capabilities, there is a certain amount of their reputation on the line for each film given their high level of success. No matter the quality of the films that came before it, the stakes were always high for Pete Doctor’s Inside Out, and perhaps will stay high for each film that follows. Not only is Inside Out one of Pixar’s better films to date, it is arguably their most important.

As stated earlier, the film depicts the emotions of 11-year-old girl Riley guide her through life, but trouble abounds when emotions Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) lose themselves from Headquarters – in other words, Riley’s mind – after Riley and her parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco. As Joy and Sadness struggle to get back to Headquarters, Riley struggles with being in a new environment, with a number of instances causing her to lose key aspects of her identity.

Before exploring the film’s emotional – (laughs to self), not even sorry – core, it is important to mention that a number of aesthetics, from the beautiful animation to the engaging characters brought to life through pinpoint casting, help make Inside Out a classic Pixar film in every sense of the word. The filmmakers’ creativity radiates from every scene, wowing viewers young and old with a little cheekiness to boot. As far as the cast goes, everyone does a more than serviceable job in their respective roles. Perhaps Poehler and Smith stand out as Joy and Sadness because the narrative revolves around their actions, but cast members Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, and Bill Hader are given plenty of opportunities to shine.

Now to explore what is most important for the film, the film contains a number of essential messages for its younger viewers regarding mental health and everything necessary for growing up. The film deftly moves through the complexities of human emotions, emphasizing a few key concepts: that a number of emotions may switch back and forth, that there is more to each feeling than a simple black-and-white definition, and that even the negative sides of existence may bring around the positive, as was so eloquently depicted during the film’s conclusion.

One of the most poignant messages the film made surrounded ideas of childhood and long-term memory. Long-term memory is depicted as an expansive library of moments in time categorized by the feelings experienced. While most maintain their glowing color, some fade to a dull, dark grey over time, destined to be dumped into the abyss of forgotten memories. While this reality is perhaps easy to swallow, it is much less easier to digest the idea that core facets of our childhood must be left behind in order to grow, another feature so powerfully depicted by the film’s climax.

Competition on summer weekends is nothing new, but to have more than one incredible option is always a welcome change of pace. So, put on a blindfold and keep spinning around until you stop to reach your film of choice. Odds are, you can’t lose.

Dope: 3.5/4

Inside Out: 3.5/4

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