Dropped into the maelstrom of big-budgeted summer movie madness are two little indie flicks that are a nice change of pace compared to a lot of what’s flooding the cineplexes at the moment.
First up is Dope, which is a breath of fresh air this summer in its originality, energy and how it presents its characters. The film showcases the coming of age story of three kids growing up in the not so decadent parts of Inglewood, California. The thing I absolutely love about this movie is that it takes that trope and turns it on its head. The three main characters, led by Shameik Moore, who carries the movie on his more than capable shoulders, aren’t your typical, carbon copy characters you would usually expect in a film like this. They’re misfits surrounded by the type of characters you would think would permeate the neighborhoods they live in, and because of that they don’t fit in, but being who they are, wouldn’t really fit in anywhere else either. Moore’s character, in particular, has dreams of going to Harvard. He studies hard, while reading manga comics, picking up vinyl LPs of old-school rappers and just trying to evade the day to day trials that come with living in the world that he and his equally geeky friends inhabit. Their love of 90’s hip hop and everything associated with it is a nostalgic trip to anyone (like me) who was around and old enough to remember fondly that era. It’s funny film with a surprisingly powerful message it springs on you at the very end, but well worth the wait to get to it. Dope is one of those films I think will do better after it leaves theaters, developing a kind of cult status, the kind of movie that will be played in house parties all over, whether it be in the deepest parts of the inner city or the farthest parts of the suburbs. Dope is a movie that everyone can and should see because there’s a little bit of all of us in the characters it presents. This film, for me, is one of the best of the summer.
The second indie gem is the wonderfully crafted, and incredibly touching Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. Take an odd kid with low (and I mean low) self-esteem, his best friend who’s just as odd but lacking the self esteem problem and a girl who’s just been diagnosed with cancer, and you get a funnier story than you’d think. Narrated by Greg (Thomas Mann) the movie is self-aware of the genre it’s in, often, though not coming out and saying so directly, comparing itself to a similar movie dealing with the subject of teens and cancer from a year ago. Its quirky and strange pairing of friends in Greg and Earl (Rj Cyler) lifts the film off the ground in entertaining fashion whenever the two are on screen together or their works of bad (and I do mean bad) moving making make an appearance. By far the heart and soul of the film belongs to Olvia Cooke’s, Rachel, the dying girl in question. She anchors this film in-between the peculiarities of the other characters, adding some weighty seriousness with a dash of playfulness and snark every once in a while. It’s clear that while Rachel is a sympathetic character, she’s not one you’re supposed to pity (although, if there’s any shred of humanity in you, you will), even saying as much at the beginning of the film.
The movie knows exactly what it is and is not, as Greg says, “If this was a touching romantic story, our eyes would meet and suddenly we’d be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns. But this isn’t a touching romantic story.” It doesn’t have any grand speeches about how unfair life can be. Instead it shows you in its little nuanced ways that make the film that much better. The movie is a testament that in the right hands, character-driven stories, crafted by a capable director and a good cast, can out-perform it’s more lavish and bigger budgeted counterparts (where the catering probably cost more than a film like this) on an entertainment level. Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is a sometimes tongue-planted-firmly-in-cheek, funny, odd (in a way that only an indie film can be) and (despite what Greg says) a powerfully touching film that will kick you right in the chest with emotion. Reminding its viewer, that there was a time when films actually centered on making the persons watching feel more than just one or two emotions, but a myriad of them.
If you want to take a break from Dinosaurs, Avengers and Terminators, to delve into something more subtle, quieter and truly feel something in the process, then these two films will definitely feel that niche.